Actor Joaquin Phoenix takes the microphone to reinvent himself as a hip-hop musician in Casey Affleck's "I'm Still Here."
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If Casey Affleck's new movie "I'm Still Here" had been a genuine exploration of Oscar-nominated actor Joaquin Phoenix's wacked-out journey to become a white hip-hop star, it would have been a shocking, revelatory glimpse into the painful limits that a real artist will go to find personal fulfillment.
But "I'm Still Here" is a wax job, a fake, a put-on, a sham.
Some scenes appear to be real documentary footage cut in with the hocus-pocus. But for the most part, signs of directed fiction are all over this project.
First, nobody objects to having Affleck's camera around 24/7 recording every intimate detail of their lives.
Nobody demands the camera be shut-off or refuses to talk (although Sean Combs at least asks Phoenix why he brought a camera crew to his apartment late at night before he lets them in).
Whole scenes scream "set up."
In the most obvious one, Affleck's night-vision camera captures -- in a happy accident of good timing? -- a disgruntled "assistant" named Anton pulling down his pants to defecate on Phoenix while he sleeps in his bed.
Phoenix's assistants (well-endowed males with apparently no qualms about full-frontal shots) don't get last names. A Newsweek "journalist" gets no name at all.
It's not that Affleck claims that "I'm Still Here" is a hard news documentary. He doesn't and it isn't. (He also soft-pedals that he's Phoenix's brother-in-law, having married his sister Summer.)
This poor man's "Borat" begins in 2008 with Phoenix announcing his retirement from acting to pursue his ultimate dream of becoming a white hip-hop artist.
"I don't want to play the character of Joaquin Phoenix anymore," he says.
"Two Lovers" will be his last movie, he says, and he strikes out on an agonizing quest to reinvent himself with reluctant help from rap star Sean Combs, who wonderfully underplays his reactions to hearing Phoenix's earache sample tracks.
In no time, Phoenix grows a beard and balloons up like Jim Morrison during his final days in France. He snorts drugs, orders up a couple of online hookers (fortunately, we are spared their activities) and launches into speeches wafting with self-pity and self-delusion.
"Do you think a fly's wings are strictly a mode of transportation?" he mumbles rhetorically.
Edward James Olmos stops by to give Phoenix some mystic words of reassurance about being reconstituted as a drop of evaporated water.
Mos Def and Ben Stiller appear in key scenes so tightly woven into the fabric of Affleck's narrative that it's impossible to tell if they're in on the joke, or dead serious.
(Did I imagine on the credits that Tim Affleck actually played Phoenix's dad?)
"I'm Still Here" replays the sad and comical time Phoenix appears on "The David Letterman Show" and is so uncooperative that the host has great fun at the actor's expense.
"I'm sorry you couldn't make it here tonight," Letterman quips. The crowd goes crazy with laughter.
How much of "I'm Still Here" is real and how much has been added on is the puzzle that we constantly wrestle with in this pseudo-doc riddled with cheap shock devices.
Unlike "Borat," where we were in on the joke with Sacha Baron Cohen, Affleck never lets us behind the curtain. He plays us for the chumps that Cohen played his unsuspecting co-stars for, and it's impossible not to feel a little bit conned by the experience.
Regardless, Phoenix gives up a truly pain-wracked, credible rendition of a tortured artist in the throes of self-doubt.
And Affleck can't wait to share that torture with us.
'I'm Still Here'
Rating: ★ ½
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Casey Affleck, Antony Langdon
Directed by: Casey Affleck
Other: A Magnolia Films release. At the Century Centre in Chicago. Not rated, but contains drug use, language, nudity, sexual situations. 108 minutes