Talk about a spoiler! While the film is interesting enough on its merits, half the fun of watching it was discussing it afterward and trying to figure out Affleck and Phoenix’s intentions in making it, and to what extent it was “real.” After a press screening, Indy film critic Neil Morris, culture editor David Fellerath and I took up that discussion in the lobby and continued it in e-mail for several days afterward.
As Affleck told Michael Cieply of the Times (elaborated on in a blog post), he didn’t think anyone would mistake the film’s veracity: “‘…the question of real or not wasn’t something I thought would exist after the film was seen in its entirety, credits and all,’ he said. ‘It seems obvious’ that it is not.” The credits do provide clues that all is not as it seems, one of which was caught by Morris (see below). But Roger Ebert was taken in, much to his chagrin (“If this film turns out to still be part of an elaborate hoax, I'm going to be seriously pissed”—though not as pissed as he thought he would be), as was Dana Stevens of Slate.
Morris was skeptical from the beginning, as he relates in his review, which was published the day before Affleck’s Times interview. Here, for interested readers, are some of the results of our eyewitness and online sleuthing (travel with me now back in time, back to those carefree and innocent days when we could trust well-known actors not to fool audiences and critics into believing that filmed depictions of sordid, career-killing escapades were real… back to Sept. 10, 2010).
SPOILER ALERT—if Affleck hasn’t already spoiled the movie for you, these notes might:
* Toward the end of the film, there’s a scene in which Phoenix flies to Panama to meet with his father. In the closing credits, Morris noticed that the role of Joaquin Phoenix’s father was played by Tim Affleck, father of Casey and Ben. This was probably the clearest giveaway in the film, but you had to be paying fairly close attention to the credits to notice it. It slipped past Ebert, as well as Fellerath and me (we were already busy dissecting the case).
* The credits also said “Written and directed by JP and CA,” though as Variety reported on Sept. 6, Affleck claimed, at Venice Film Festival, that “he and Phoenix only took credit as the film's writers because of guild rules.”
* The film opens with what appears to be a home movie of a young boy (presumably Phoenix) standing hesitantly at the top of a waterfall while a man (presumably his father) watches to see if he’ll jump. The time code at the bottom reads “1982,” but the first consumer camcorders didn’t come out until 1983; as well, the stillness of the camera (using a tripod) and total lack of chatter make this suspiciously unlike your typical home movie. The scene is also remarkably similar to a scene from GERRY, a 2002 drama starring Affleck and Matt Damon, directed by Gus Van Sant, who’s thanked in the credits to I'm Still Here.
* And finally, the evidence that really clinched it for me: the appearance by a cleaned-up, beardless, cooperative-seeming Phoenix in a short PSA for a suicide-prevention nonprofit last January. This video reached 2 million views in short order, cluing in anyone following the story that Phoenix’s I'm Still Here persona hadn’t lasted.
Affleck says he felt the need to come clean because “the reviews were so angry,” adding, “I never intended to trick anybody.” Indeed, the level of hostility that’s been directed at Phoenix since his now infamous appearance on David Letterman’s show in 2009 has been mystifying. Comment boards online (which, to be sure, tend to invite comment from the most hateful among us) are filled with invective like “He was trash when he first started the act. All they did now as confirm that he's trash. Feel free to go away now, Joaquin. You're tired.”
The anger seems out of proportion to the sin of acting rudely toward a talk show host and misleading the public about his career choices. It seems he’s being punished for failing to conform to our expectations of how Hollywood celebrities should act. This brings up one of the more interesting aspects of I'm Still Here, which is what it actually does document, aside from all the business with the invented persona. Phoenix may be acting, but the mockery and ridicule directed at him are real. For growing his hair and beard, gaining weight, taking a break from acting, and making some (admittedly awkward) attempts at rapping, he was pilloried. Now that the gig is up, the public comes off looking much uglier than he does.
The gig being up, another question arises: is it worth buying a ticket to I'm Still Here? It’s still playing at the Carolina, Chelsea, Colony and Galaxy theaters (through Thursday, and then only the Galaxy). Though the chance to guess at its veracity is past, it's still a unique comment on celebrity. Phoenix's performance as a shambling, boorish version of himself is "compelling, always watchable, manages to be repulsive and charming, believable in all emotions, completely committed, incredibly brave," in the words of Affleck, his co-conspirator. Since it involved (or at least coincided with) sacrificing years from his successful career as an actor, it's more than just a stunt. It's heady, intricate performance art.
Phoenix will appear on The Late Show tonight, for the first time since the appearance documented in I'm Still Here. It's comforting to know that, unlike his brother River, whose celebrity destroyed him, he's still here; it's to his credit that we're still talking about him.