I'm Still Here -- Film Review

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VENICE -- Give up acting? Casey Affleck's energetic directorial debut, "I'm Still Here," basically scotches the idea that Joaquin Phoenix has retired as an actor to become a hip-hop artist, revealing it all to be an elaborate media hoax, albeit one that has seriously altered the actor's real-life image over the past year and a half. This sporadically engrossing mockumentary, which gets better as it rolls along, must have been planned way back before Phoenix bombed on "Late Show With David Letterman." Or is part of it for real?

At the film's Venice news conference, which Phoenix notably failed to attend, Affleck continued to suggest that he had shot a straight documentary, contrary to much evidence in the film.

The fact that an audience can watch the film to the end and not be completely sure where reality ends and playtime begins is a tribute to Affleck's skills at mimicking documentary tropes: the hand-held camera, badly framed images and the mishmash of news reports and YouTube clips. It also is a backhanded compliment to Phoenix's thespian abilities and courage. But it might leave viewers with too much head-scratching uncertainty when it opens Friday in English-speaking territories. Audiences who drink their documentaries straight, beware: This is one potent mixed cocktail.

Daring to look nasty, vindictive, self-centered and ridiculous, Phoenix surrenders all privacy to his brother-in-law Affleck's invasive cameras. They follow him into hotel rooms and bed, voyeuristically watching while he uses recreational drugs, entertains two New York hookers and falls apart at the seams.

Deciding to turn rapper out of the blue, Phoenix begins pursuing Sean "Diddy" Combs cross-country in the hope of doing a record together. But when he finally gets into Combs' recording studio with a homemade CD of his songs, the rapper quickly realizes what the audience already knows: that Phoenix's artistic talents lie elsewhere. "Why do you want to do hip-hop?" Combs asks in wonderment.

Shattered by Combs' reaction, Phoenix goes on "Letterman" in a catatonic state. Belittled and mocked by his host, he inspires tenderness for the first time; but the show sends his popularity plummeting. Like a wounded animal, he takes out his frustrations on assistant Anton (played by actor Antony Langdon) and manager Larry. Then he remembers the wisdom lecture imparted by his friend Edward James Olmos, who compares his career to a drop of water that runs from the top of the mountain to the valley, disappears into the ocean, then evaporates and returns to the top again. Phoenix takes it as the truth about his life.

Although the first half of the film keeps the viewer guessing about what's actually going on, it is paradoxically when the tricks and mirrors are forgotten that the film becomes funny and enjoyable as an engrossing character study. It finally becomes possible to gaze beyond Phoenix's four-letter words and manic ranting and at the man himself.

In any case, Affleck has shown he has pretty radical directing ideas and is a contender for that special over-the-top place where Hollywood's brightest laugh at themselves.

Much fun are the celebrities who waltz through Phoenix's life including John Travolta, Sean Penn and Jamie Foxx. Ben Stiller rules in two classic moments of tomfoolery: once, when he proposes a script to Phoenix and they exchange comments regarding "Something About Mary," and later when he spoofs his unkempt looks at a big awards ceremony as Natalie Portman looks on.

Venue: Venice Film Festival (Out of Competition)
Production company: They Are Going to Kill Us Productions, Magnolia Pictures
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Antony Langdon, Ben Stiller, Sean Combs, Edward James Olmos, Tim Affleck, Sue Patricola
Director: Casey Affleck
Screenwriters: Casey Affleck, Joaquin Phoenix
Producers: Casey Affleck, Joaquin Phoenix, Amanda White
Directors of photography: Casey Affleck, Magdalena Gorka
Music: Marty Fogg
Editors: Casey Affleck, Dody Dorn
Sales Agent: Magnolia Pictures International
No rating, 108 minutes