Running Away From the Circus
By MANOHLA DARGIS
Has Joaquin Phoenix lost it? That question began raging through the chattersphere in late 2008 and early 2009, especially after the actor showed up on the â€œLate Show With David Lettermanâ€ and didnâ€™t jovially sell the goods. Beefed up and scruffy-faced, wearing sunglasses and undertakerâ€™s basic black, he didnâ€™t play to the crowd, flatter the host or flack for his latest film, â€œTwo Lovers.â€
Instead, for a twitchy, perversely funny stretch, he mumbled and fidgeted, softly, often monosyllabically, responding as Mr. Lettermanâ€™s formulaic jive grew testy. â€œWhat can you tell us about your days with the Unabomber?â€ Mr. Letterman asked at one point. Mr. Phoenix looked down while the audience roared at a joke few seemed to grasp.
More than a year later the joke continues, sputters, occasionally hits its target and finally wears out its welcome in â€œIâ€™m Still Here,â€ a deadpan satire or a deeply sincere folly (my money is on the first option) about Mr. Phoenixâ€™s recent roles as an acting dropout and would-be hip-hop artist. Directed by Casey Affleck (whoâ€™s married to Mr. Phoenixâ€™s sister Summer), the movie, which is being unpersuasively sold as a documentary, is a gloss on the mutually parasitic worlds of celebritydom and the entertainment media. Those are worlds Mr. Phoenix knows well, having fed the beast since his breakout role as Nicole Kidmanâ€™s poignantly thickheaded lover in â€œTo Die For,â€ Gus Van Santâ€™s 1995 comedy about the tragedy of fame.
â€œIâ€™m Still Hereâ€ isnâ€™t as merciless as â€œTo Die For,â€ which was etched in acid by the screenwriter Buck Henry. Mr. Affleck and Mr. Phoenix have been involved in the movie business long enough to be disgusted (or maybe just irked) by it, but they donâ€™t appear to have surrendered to cynicism. Whatever else their movie is, and whatever their actual intentions, â€œIâ€™m Still Hereâ€ does take on, at times forcefully and effectively, the pathological fallout of the Entertainment Industrial Complex. Much of the movie involves Mr. Phoenixâ€™s having, or more likely pantomiming, a meltdown, for which he puts on a really good show. (He snorts white powder, hires a hooker, abuses his assistants.) But the programmatic nature of his antics strongly suggests that he is self-consciously playing a role in a narrative, one that isnâ€™t simply about him.
Itâ€™s a story that begins once upon a time in his childhood, first in Latin America and then in Los Angeles, where he sang on the streets alongside his four siblings, including his older brother River, who died in 1993 at 23 from a drug overdose. The Joaquin Phoenix story continues to build, as does his fame, a character arc illustrated with images of him making the rounds on and off the red carpet. The plot then thickens â€” and intermittently goes slack â€” with scenes of him playing, in public and â€œprivate,â€ familiar star parts, including the physical ruin (shades of Elvis); talk show prankster (Ã la Crispin Glover); and actor turned singer (a role also played by Jamie Foxx, who puts in a cringingly embarrassing cameo appearance).
The multiplicity of roles Mr. Phoenix performs in â€œIâ€™m Still Hereâ€ brings to mind Todd Haynesâ€™s similarly titled â€œIâ€™m Not There.â€ In that multistranded 2007 film, Mr. Haynes used different actors, men and women, black and white, to represent Bob Dylan or, rather, the multiple identities (folkie, mythmaker, rocker) that this shape-shifting singer has assumed over his career. By contrast, â€œIâ€™m Still Hereâ€ takes the shape of a celebrity-profile documentary, with the attendant narrative strategies (battered old home movies to represent the past) and visual clichÃ©s (shaky camera work, bad lighting). Although not as formally audacious or intellectually exciting as Mr. Haynesâ€™s film, â€œIâ€™m Still Hereâ€ nonetheless also makes the case for identity or, more accurately, identities as both constructed and protean.
To this end itâ€™s telling that Mr. Phoenix, in an early scene of him turning in his celebrity credentials, as it were, says, â€œI donâ€™t want to play the character of Joaquin anymore.â€ To judge from his gut and the dreadlocks sprouting on his head, he has already quit playing the manicured media commodity who, in keeping with the false intimacy of the entertainment sphere, is known by his or her first name (Joaquin, Julia, George). That Joaquin hugs Jay Leno like a long-lost friend, smiles at the paparazzi shrieking his name on the red carpet and receives a kiss from John Travolta, as Mr. Phoenix did at the Golden Globes. This Joaquin is fat, fuzzy, obnoxious, whiny, seemingly talentless and definitely not Regis-and-Kelly-friendly.
Is it any wonder Mr. Phoenix wanted out, or said he did? Certainly itâ€™s understandable that someone who more or less grew up on camera, and who watched his brother become famous and perhaps succumb to the crushing pressures, would have something to say about the absurdities and horrors of celebrity. Yeah, yeah, celebrity has its privileges. But in an age of nearly continuous surveillance, where being a celebrity means being forced to relinquish any claims to privacy, it can have the aspect of a nightmare, as is made discomfortingly obvious by a recently released video of Kate Moss, with her toddler in tow, fighting to leave an airport amid a swarm of paparazzi. (The video was used to help pass the recent so-called anti-paparazzi law in California that would curtail unauthorized celebrity snaps.)
Of course thereâ€™s a chance that Mr. Phoenix just wanted a break from the bread and circuses, though the fact that he starred in â€” and helped produce â€” this movie around the time he was saying goodbye to acting strongly suggests otherwise. My guess is that after years of being the trick pony, he wanted to see what it was like to be the ringmaster. He found a willing accomplice in Mr. Affleck and received some fine support from Ben Stiller and P. Diddy, who show up at different points in â€œIâ€™m Still Hereâ€ to play their roles as a potential colleague and a would-be music producer. As to us â€” well, we too are playing our roles, first by guessing whatâ€™s up with Joaquin Phoenix and then by wondering whether we need to buy a ticket.
â€œIâ€™m Still Hereâ€ is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). Nudity, defecation, drugs.
Running Away From the Circus