Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Ugly Truth: I'M STILL HERE

It’s fair to say that, in 2008, when Joaquin Phoenix announced he would retire from acting to pursue a career in hip-hop, the news was greeted with much skepticism and some sadness. He’s a supremely talented and wonderfully intense screen presence. For a while, no one heard from him, though we were all aware of the fact that his brother-in-law, Casey Affleck, was making a documentary about the situation. He was occasionally spotted by paparazzi, letting the world see his weight gain and his unkempt facial hair. Then word would come that he popped up at some small club giving an awful rapping performance. Then he gave an uncomfortable interview to David Letterman. For a while, the news cycle treated Phoenix as at best a curiosity, at worst a joke.

Now we have the fruits of that weirdness too little too late. It doesn’t help that the results are entirely uninteresting. The documentary I’m Still Here has been announced to be a piece of performance art, nothing more than an elaborate goof. It is like the more-fake-than-real Borat by way of the more-real-than-fake Exit Through the Gift Shop, in that I think this is supposed to be funny and making cultural commentary while having a fuzzy relationship with the truth. Unlike those films, however, I’m Still Here lacks a point of view, lacks a statement, and lacks any sense of comedy, shape, and coherence. I’m not even a fan of Borat (though Bruno certainly represented an improvement), but it’s even clearer now that Sacha Baron Cohen is a performance art genius, especially when compared to what Phoenix is pulling here. Unlike Cohen, Phoenix is working without a safety net. By playing himself, the lines between reality and fiction are blurred. No one would mistake Cohen for Borat or Bruno, but Phoenix runs the risk of people thinking he’s a jerk. He spends nearly all of the movie’s 108 minutes rambling nonsense, jealously lashing out at those around him, starting petty arguments, and basically becoming as deliberately off-putting as possible.

I don’t know if Phoenix is a jerk. I don’t know if Affleck is either, though playing some role in goading his brother-in-law into this act doesn’t make him look good either. What I do know for sure is that these two men are very talented actors. It has to take talent to create a movie this pointless, this reprehensibly terrible. Neither man walks away from this film with his reputation intact. This is a movie that is actively unwatchable. It’s a lump of inert nonsense playing towards pretension. It has no insight, no momentum, and no reason for being. There are only a handful of scenes in the entire movie that are not repellent, ridiculous, or ugly.

The movie has widely been called a hoax. I’m not sure what that means in this case. Was anyone ever completely fooled by Phoenix? The hoax of the movie is that it tricked us into paying attention to it in the first place. This is the first movie I’ve seen that I feel uncomfortable even dignifying with a review. While I respect the creative impulses that led Phoenix to try out such an audacious acting challenge, I feel nothing but sadness towards the lazy, self-indulgent, overlong, unconstructive, and misguided results. It’s a real shame we’ve all had to waste our time on such garbage. I’m glad Joaquin Phoenix is still here and I await his next performance. Let’s hope he has nowhere to go but up.

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