Thursday 6 January 2011

On DVD: "I'm Still Here"

So, to I'm Still Here - or, perhaps we should say, Joaquin Phoenix's Year Off. It was late in 2008 that Phoenix, star of the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line, stunned the entertainment industry by announcing he'd be quitting acting after his latest project (James Gray's interesting Two Lovers) to pursue a career as a purveyor of (it turned out, terrible) white-boy hip-hop. To show how serious he was in this matter, Phoenix grew a beard, put on weight, staggered onto the Letterman sofa in an appearance that would be replayed and dissected across the Internet for days to come, and employed his brother-in-law Casey Affleck to follow him around with a camera, in order to capture what the actor described as "the honest me". This was, apparently, Joaquin Phoenix: Keeping It Real. (ITV2 must have been kicking themselves.)

The fly-on-the-wall (or on-the-toilet-bowl) artefact that has resulted follows Phoenix backstage to mingle with Bruce Willis and Sean Penn, watches J-Pho engaged in a series of increasingly shambolic negotiations with his notional producer P-Diddy, and somehow manages to keep a straight face as Phoenix seeks life lessons from none other than "E-Jo", a.k.a. Battlestar Galactica actor Edward James Olmos. In between, the subject stumbles and scrabbles around like a man who's just stepped on his own lost marbles, while the degree of industry verisimilitude suggests what we're witnessing is, indeed, for real. Ben Stiller drops by to discuss a possible part for Phoenix in Greenberg; at another point, the actor laments his participation in Terry George's direct-to-DVD drama Reservation Road, wishing he'd been in the hotter-tipped Revolutionary Road instead. With his wild eyes and ranty demeanour, this Phoenix would surely have been a lock for the Michael Shannon role.

Since the film's release, Affleck has publicly admitted I'm Still Here was, after all, a stunt, and even without this confession, it might have been possible to spot the prankster influence of Sacha Baron Cohen on events. The white boy seeking to pass himself off within a hip-hop milieu is pure Ali G, transplanted from Staines to the Sunset Strip; we're offered the now-familiar postmodern pastime of guessing who on screen is (and who on screen isn't) in on the joke; and it comes to a head with a brawl in a nightclub that proves the film's equivalent of Borat kidnapping Pamela Anderson in a public space - the joke, once again, is on the onlookers. More specifically American elements of gonzo include the repeat stripping of Phoenix's assistants, suggesting that Judd Apatow's transgressive mission to return the male member to the very heart of screen comedy is taking, as it were, root.

Many of these stunts caused a furore in the blogosphere at the time, but looked at with distance, it's clear that what Affleck and Phoenix really achieved here was to lessen the element of comic risk central to Baron Cohen's work. Presumably, for a millionaire actor, jackassing around with your mates close at hand for twelve months would be an easier proposition than trying to find the right role with which to follow up the biggest success of your career to date. I'm Still Here is one way to decompress, of course, but it never quite throws off its air of brattish indulgence, and it needed a more critical frame of reference, something more considered on the media shitstorm this alterna-Phoenix whipped up; some sense director and performer understood the monster they'd created, and weren't content merely to stand around sniggering at his pratfalls. (Affleck mostly ignores the obvious irony that the more Phoenix retreated from public life, the more newsprint he seemed to engender.)

As it is, I think it's still possible to admire Phoenix's commitment to the gag: his willingness not just to play this role, but to live it, indeed. (It's one of those rare instances where a film may yet be scooped by its own making-of feature.) This is Method comedy, and it's the intensity with which the star is prepared to make a pillock of himself that grabs you: Phoenix is striving as hard to perpetuate this joke as Vincent Gallo usually is to be taken seriously. Viewed in this context, what's most impressive about that now-notorious Letterman appearance is that Phoenix never once breaks character - even in the strained atmosphere of a live studio recording - and, while appearing to retreat behind his newly assumed accoutrements of sunglasses and facial hair, gives out just enough, the barest of minimums, to keep the interview (and thus the stunt) rolling. (He could, if he were really serious, have stormed off-set the moment Letterman cracked wise about his facial hair.)

If you can get past the feeling this joke's on us, it is at least an enjoyable wind-up, offering (more so than, say, any SNL host gig) a transition into comic-absurd-knockabout roles for a performer previously best known for the gravity of his dramatic work - that, finally, is where any real shock in I'm Still Here still resides. Unable to reveal the sham within the movie, Affleck finishes on a false note, with JP seeking to get away from it all during a visit to his father in Panama, an instance of sentiment or special pleading to which Baron Cohen wouldn't dare stoop, hinting as it does there might be a human being with actual feelings beneath the character's surface excess; as it turns out, finding out an actor is only playing at being a coke-snorting, assistant-abusing, hooker-screwing asshole is somehow far more reassuring than any appointment with the real thing.

I'm Still Here is available on DVD from Monday.

No comments:

Post a Comment