The word “hoax” got thrown around in 2008 when Joaquin Phoenix announced his transition from acting to hip-hop and transformed himself into a furry, narcotized freak who rapped like a Hasid addled by too many horas. But “hoax” strikes me as inapt: Was anyone with half a brain actually deceived? I prefer the word “act.” In Casey Affleck’s drolly poker-faced “documentary,” I’m Still Here, Phoenix’s metamorphosis looks less like a scam than a go-for-broke art project, an outlandish psychodrama with a nucleus of truth. A onetime alcoholic who’s known for being alternately un- and over-defended, whose beloved brother was a casualty of celebrity excess, who had fled show business before, who had lost himself in the role of Johnny Cash, country music’s quintessential self-created “outlaw” (winning acclaim but losing the ultimate prize, the Oscar), Phoenix would be a natural for one of those actorish existential breakdowns—the ones that turn on the old conundrum, “Where does my mask end and my true self begin?” To dismiss his latest role (and the film that charts its evolution) because it’s not “real” is to miss out on the charge of watching an actor play footsy with his own, barely corralled dementia.
For the record, Affleck never owns up onscreen to the artifice, and the supporting players (Antony, identified as “friend and general assistant,” and Larry, “friend and caretaker”) convinced me that the abuse they were taking was as real as … as … their large penises once or twice on display. Phoenix, meanwhile, babbles and cackles, sucks on joints (real?), Hoovers up cocaine (real?), and extols the “buttholes” of online prostitutes (real!). He grows pudgier and pudgier. He vomits prodigiously. He didn’t make me squirm, though, the way I do watching Borat humiliate his marks or Larry David on Curb Your Enthusiasm endlessly reshuffle his small deck of neuroses. There’s a thrilling madness to Phoenix’s Method.
I’m Still Here does offer the more traditional mockumentary hilarity, like hearing Phoenix rhyme “Joaquin” with “tear out my spleen” and appall Sean Combs—his hoped-for hip-hop producer—with songs of unsurpassed awfulness. We rewatch almost the whole of his jaw-dropping turn on the Late Show, which David Letterman concluded by saying, “Joaquin, I’m sorry you couldn’t be here tonight.” But Joaquin was, of course, very much there. Later, when he watches the broadcast, he looks genuinely stricken, wondering—as exhibitionists often do, after the fact—if he has permanently deformed his career. (The film is from They Are Going to Kill Us Productions.) The danger in almost every frame made me think less of Christopher Guest’s ensemble improvs than Gus Van Sant’s gutsy experiments, and Phoenix and Affleck have both worked with him. On some level, I’m Still Here feels truly obsessive, as if Phoenix needed to act out his own destruction. I can’t wait for his next big act.
Watching Nicholas Fackler’s Lovely, Still is up there with my weirdest experiences at the movies in years, though spelling out why would deprive you of a similar—and powerful—upending. Martin Landau, looking a decade older than his 82 years, scrutinizes his white face in the bathroom mirror, the camera fixed on its bony ridges and sunken planes. His Robert Malone shuffles off each day to a job in an Omaha supermarket, where he appears to do little but sketch and yet is treated with affection by the manager (the wonderfully silly Adam Scott). Landau registers everything in a kind of Stan Laurel slow motion, which is funny and lovable and slightly unnerving. Is he all there? When a pretty widow, Mary (Ellen Burstyn), moves into the neighborhood with her daughter (Elizabeth Banks) and instantly courts him, he is sweetly befuddled; he could be the 90-year-old virgin. On their dates, they’re like enraptured children, and Fackler gives these scenes a Christmas-storybook feel, with swirling snow and a soundtrack of carols. It’s a bit like ingenue Naomi Watts’s dazzled response to Hollywood in the first half of David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, and there are other Lynchian touches, too, transitions in which the screen turns red or blue and comes alive with sparks that look like firing synapses. And the dissonances continue. In the end, Lovely, Still is a haunting duet for two great actors who haven’t lost a step and have gained the most exquisite lyricism.