Critical Mass: 'I'm Still Here'
Is he for real or is he fooling? Is he a modern Andy Kaufman or just another bloated, broken-down Hollywood star? These are the questions swirling around director Casey Affleck's bizarre reality project "I'm Still Here," chronicling the supposed "tumultuous year" in the life of his brother-in-law, Oscar nominee Joaquin Phoenix.
Critics, just like everyone else, seem split on whether Phoenix's behavior is real or a put-on, and they are also split on whether that behavior is worth watching, no matter its veracity.
Here's a quick rundown of who believed what:
The "It's a Hoax!-ers"
Put The Times' own Kenneth Turan firmly in the "not a fan" camp. He writes, "Though 'I'm Still Here' can be persuasive, by the time it's over the feeling is inescapable that to one degree or another what we've been watching is a convincing hoax, a glum and dispiriting counterfeit of reality that turns out to be much more interesting to speculate about than to actually watch."
The New York Times' Manohla Dargis returns from her hiatus to write a review that's more positive than Turan's but seconds his belief that Affleck and Phoenix are putting us on. She sees the film as a less cynical companion to Gus Van Sant's acid "To Die For" but says, "Whatever else their movie is, and whatever their actual intentions, 'I'm Still Here' does take on, at times forcefully and effectively, the pathological fallout of the Entertainment Industrial Complex."
The Chicago Tribune's Michael Phillips is not the only critic who noticed that Phoenix's so-called father in the film is actually someone with the last name of Affleck, but it's doubtful he would have liked the film even if he hadn't noticed. "I genuinely hated this picture," he says. "Almost as much as I've admired Phoenix's work in everything from 'Gladiator' to 'Walk the Line.' "
The "It's All (or Almost) Real!-ers"
Roger Ebert is probably the most famous critic to buy into Affleck's assertion that the film is real. And Ebert is no stooge — don't try to tell him you see ghosts in his photos. But once he believes something, as in the case of "I'm Still Here," he invests in it heart and soul. His review reads almost like a letter worrying about a dear friend. "I have hope that if Phoenix ever cleans up his body and mind, he can be restored, and can be happy again," Ebert says. Ebert, however, is not unlike that other Chicago media titan, Oprah Winfrey. Just as she brought down her Oprah-fury on faux memoirist James Frey, Ebert cautions his readers, "If this film turns out to still be part of an elaborate hoax, I'm going to be seriously pissed."
Owen Gleiberman in Entertainment Weekly can't seem to make up his mind whether Phoenix's shtick is a hoax or a breakdown, so he hedges his bets and calls it neither. And he says the reality "is much sadder." He calls the film a documentary, and he reacts to the film with the assumption that — if it was some sort of put-on — the other participants had no idea. Phoenix's awkward exchange with David Letterman is well-documented, but Gleiberman points out Ben Stiller's mocking appearance at the Academy Awards was probably revenge for being disrespected by Phoenix, whose behavior "only caps how annoyed Stiller is to be wasting his time with this bum."
Slate's Dana Stevens has an even stranger idea of what's really going on with the film. Though she suspects some of it may be fake, she seems convinced that Phoenix's breakdown is the real deal and that Affleck's film was cooked up and enhanced to take advantage of the man's downfall. "Now that the product of Affleck's labors is here, it feels less like an Andy Kaufman-esque happening and more like a GG Allin-style flameout," she says. "After viewing this film I have no doubt that Phoenix is, whatever else he may be, a lost ... and suffering man."
As the film opens this weekend, the debate rages on.
— Patrick Kevin Day
Photo: Joaquin Phoenix faces the press in "I'm Still Here." Credit: Magnolia Pictures