R, 2.5 stars
Did you see NUVO referenced and linked in the New York Times last week?
Before addressing that, I acknowledge that many of you have no intention of seeing I'm Still Here, the pretend documentary by Casey Affleck about Joaquin Phoenix's high-profile "retirement from acting" and pursuit of a career as a rap artist. But you're at least a little curious about the whole sideshow, right? I mean, it's hard to forget Phoenix's February 11, 2009 appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman when he came on stage looking like a bedraggled hermit, plopped onto the couch and proceeded to be about as sullen, monosyllabic and peculiar as any guest in the history of the show. Dave got off some great one-liners that night, most notably, "Joaquin, I'm sorry you couldn't be here tonight."
Was it real or fake? We knew that Phoenix's friend and brother-in-law Casey Affleck was doing a documentary about the endeavor. So were we watching a genuine career implosion or a prank? The debate rolled on, more intensely with the approaching release of I'm Still Here. Then last week, Casey Affleck revealed to a New York Times writer that indeed, the Letterman appearance was a performance. One that Letterman wasn't in on, maintained Affleck.
But wait a minute; celebrated writer and regular NUVO contributor Marc D. Allan interviewed Bill Scheft in 2009 and the long-time Letterman writer made it clear that his boss was in on the whole thing. "That was all an act," he told Allan. Even Dave's part in it? "Yeah. Think Andy Kaufman without shaving," referring to the late comedian's notorious phony 1982 on-air confrontation with wrestler Jerry Lawler on Letterman's old NBC show.
New York Times writer Michael Cieply included the contrary statements from Scheft in his article, "More From Casey Affleck on 'I'm Still Here'" (you can read the online piece at http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/09/16/more-from-casey-affleck-on-im-still-here/ ), including a link to Marc Allan's original NUVO interview ( http://www.nuvo.net/indianapolis/bill-scheft-keeping-letterman-and-us-laughing/Content?oid=1273434 ). Since then, the story has been picked up by everybody and traffic to www.nuvo.net has increased by a ridiculous percentage.
Now this is the point in the article where I'm supposed to cluck over how sad it is that we focus on celebrity nonsense instead of real news, but let's not do that. This nonsense is interesting to me, and you're still reading the article, so we've no need to posture.
Was there any particular point to Phoenix's drawn-out performance art? And what about Affleck's movie? Joaquin Phoenix will be on Letterman tonight (Wednesday, Sept. 22 – if you miss the show, you can catch clips on YouTube) and maybe he'll explain his motives. As for the movie, I'm Still Here is modestly engaging, although the whole "self-absorbed and frequently stoned performer goes on an ill-conceived quest that proves self-destructive" thang has been done so many times already. Sure, the fact that Joaquin's brother River died of a overdose makes you study the film even closer, but the rewards are few.
The movie held my attention. I enjoyed watching Phoenix show off his matted hair and ever-expanding stomach – by God, he grew that belly for the project and he's going to show it off! For the most part, the acting is good, with Sean Combs and Ben Stiller contributing memorable cameo appearances. Casey Affleck gives his faux-documentary a suitably handmade look, though it's surprising that he didn't try harder to fool his viewers. Or maybe not. My guess is that Phoenix and Affleck believe there are insights to be had in the movie, truths within the fiction.
But I've seen too many reality TV shows documenting celebrity train wrecks to get worked up about I'm Still Here. The production is valuable less as a movie and more as part of a "See and Do" project. Watch the Letterman meltdown, check out the footage of the rap performance fiasco, read the New York Times piece, read Marc Allan's Bill Scheft interview, watch Phoenix's return appearance on Letterman. So many activities! Too much to watch and read to work in the movie as well.