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Toronto 2010: The non-question questions around Joaquin Phoenix's 'I'm Still Here'

September 11, 2010 |  7:48 am


If filmgoers at Toronto were expecting to get some answers about the veracity -- or purpose -- of "I'm Still Here," Casey Affleck's tour into the life of a seriously messed up (or was it performance-arted up?) Joaquin Phoenix, Friday night's premiere here left them hanging.

"Was that real?" "Didn't that seem fake?" "Could you believe that guy went to the bathroom on Joaquin's head?" As credits rolled amid notably muted applause for the film -- which shows a (former?) actor in various states of anger, glassy-eyed detachment and bad rapping -- moments were scrutinized and clues were debated. Why was it that an ostensibly nonfiction film credited Phoenix's father as "Tim Affleck" and gave Phoenix a writing credit? Was Phoenix's hectoring of an underling -- telling him to do something with his life and get his own "bit" -- intended to clue in the audience that this, too, was all a bit?

Although representatives for the film had dropped hints that Affleck would be there, the director didn't turn up at the screening. Instead he sent a message read by festival co-director Cameron Bailey. Mostly the missive offered a litany of thank-yous. But then it wrapped up with one more pull on the is-it-real rug. "As for the misguided and surprisingly reductive debate in the press, I'm trying hard not to address [it]" -- at least not until everyone has seen the movie.

If "I'm Still Here" is a hoax -- and there's plenty to suggest it is -- it doesn't do much with the the conceit. A bit should do more than just provoke the question of whether it's a bit, and nothing about "I'm Still Here" does that. In the words of our colleague Kenneth Turan in Friday's Times, if the film is a hoax, it's "a glum and dispiriting counterfeit of reality that turns out to be much more interesting to speculate about than to actually watch."

Of course if the movie really is a straight-ahead portrait of a man on the ropes -- and there's plenty to suggest it is that too -- we're not sure it does much more with that conceit either. There's not a lot of  psychological insight here about why Phoenix throws away his life, beyond the fact that he's rich and generally restless.  Somewhere in Phoenix's story lies a commentary about the excesses and price of celebrity -- or at least a rich schadenfreude-laden celebrity car accident -- but watching an endless conga line of meltdowns and freak-outs leads nowhere except to more of the same. If it's real, then it's just the David Hasselhoff cheeseburger video stretched to feature length.

Affleck's note at the screening kept the mystery alive, as though that alone would propel people to the cinemas. (In addition to playing in Toronto, "I'm Still Here" opened Friday in about 20 theaters in the United States, including the Landmark in West Los Angeles.) His message would seem to imply that Affleck will eventually provide some answers -- perhaps after a certain box-office threshold is hit?

Maybe he will. Whether anyone will care by then is another matter.

 -- Steven Zeitchik


Photo: Joaquin Phoenix, Credit: Magnolia Pictures.


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