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Hoax or exploitation? Phoenix doc walks the line.

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It's Affleck week at the movies. With Ben Affleck's big-budget heist movie The Town flooding theaters, little brother Casey's directorial debut, I'm Still Here — a documentary portrait of actor Joaquin Phoenix's bizarre, self-imposed exile from the film business — slips onto a single screen.

No follower of celebrity gossip, I was barely aware that Phoenix had been missing. I vaguely remembered media reports that he wanted to pursue a hip-hop career and saw second-hand accounts of his awkward appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman. But Phoenix's last — final? — acting performance, in the indie Two Lovers, screened in Memphis just last year. And since I'm not at all a fan of Phoenix's two mannered Oscar-nominated performances — in Gladiator and Walk the Line — I wasn't particularly interested in his whereabouts.

This is one of the potential problems with I'm Still Here — an intimate, fly-on-the-wall portrait of Phoenix's descent into beard cultivation, snortable drugs, and slurred hip-hop. You may find yourself simultaneously drawn to some of the wild and funny things that happen on-screen while also wondering why you should care about Phoenix's apparent self-destructiveness.

Unless, of course, it's all an elaborate hoax. The film pushes back against this notion, including a testy filmed interview with an Entertainment Weekly editor after the magazine cited anonymous sources in reporting that Affleck and Phoenix were perpetrating a hoax. But there's also plenty of evidence to the contrary. For one thing, the closing credits list Affleck and Phoenix as co-writers. Beyond that, it's hard to imagine why Affleck, Phoenix's brother-in-law and longtime friend, would capture some of this material on camera — Phoenix snorting drugs, cavorting with prostitutes, vomiting backstage after a disastrous debut concert, having an anxiety attack after his Letterman appearance — if everything is completely real. Doing so seems too cruel to be credible.

Ultimately, I'm Still Here is either exploitation or gonzo satire on Hollywood hubris and celebrity lifestyle — taking the likes of Borat and Curb Your Enthusiasm to a new extreme. If it's the former, it's unnerving, engrossing, car-crash cinema ­— the worst thing that ever happened to Phoenix. If it's the latter, it's pretty easily the best thing he's ever done.

I'm Still Here

Opening Friday, September 17th

Ridgeway Four

Related Film

I'm Still Here (2010/I)

Official Site: www.imstillheremovie.com

Director: Casey Affleck

Producer: Amanda White

Cast: Joaquin Phoenix

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