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09/10/2010

Walking the line, barfing the barf

"I'm Still Here," which is at times desolate, desperate, shocking and unbelievably sad, is Joaquin Phoenix's version of "Eat Pray Love."

The lost year (or longer) for the mentally tormented and seemingly self-destructive two-time Academy Award nominee would more aptly be titled "Drugs, Rant, Barf."

Phoenix, constantly ranting and desperately, it seems (if it's for real),  in need of intervention, lashes out verbally at close associates in extended screaming rants.  When they subside, Phoenix and his associates concentrate on his new career as a heavily bearded rapper.  When Phoenix finally chases down would-be hip-hop mentor Sean "P. Ditty" Combs, Combs asks Phoenix if his new calling is just a lark.

Hoax or not, and I'm leaning in the direction of not, "I'm Still Here" is a backstage (and often bathroom) pass to Phoenix's year or so of living dangerously, both professionally and personally.

There are some compelling moments.  The now infamous appearance on David Letterman's "Late Show" is covered in detail and with added insight.  That entire day was a blur for drugged-out Phoenix, who also had commitments that day to promote the premiere of his final (so far) film "Two Lovers."

A moment or "scene" where Phoenix instructs the limo driver to pull over so he can breakdown at the side of the freeway is either very good acting or a point where someone -- and this could be you Mr. Affleck -- jumps in to get Phoenix some help.

If Phoenix's antics turn out to be an elaborated Andy Kaufman-like orchestrated hoax, it's a darn good one.

Certainly this documentary, if that's what it is, isn't entertainment by any stretch of the imagination.  The director is very good actor Casey Affleck ("Gone Baby Gone"), Ben Affleck's younger brother and Phoenix's brother-in-law.

Now the sticky wicket, so to speak, in verifying "I'm Still Here" as nonfiction.  In the film's sparse production notes, Phoenix and first-time director Affleck are listed as co-writers and co-producers.

Granted, the credits for documentaries sometime list writers when there's narration to connect scenes.

There's no such thing going on in "I'm Still Here," however.  A camera hones in on the talented, but conflicted actor who drew his second Oscar nomination channeling the late Johnny Cash in "Walk the Line."  Phoenix blurts out in the fall of 2008 that he's through with acting, that he's launching a hip-hop singing career.

That quickly becomes a nightmare for his agent, manager and inner circle of assistants.  "I'm Still Here" begins with a home video circa 1981 taken in Panama.  Joaquin, a child in a bathing suit, is trying to summon up the courage to jump off a rock into a waterfall fed pool.  

Cut to 2008 and a bloated, mumbling Phoenix shrouded in a blue hoodie says:

"Hate me or like me.  Just don't misunderstand me."

The first two requests are ultimately up to Phoenix, not us.

The third?  Impossible using "I'm Still Here" as a guidepost. 

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