Re-experience Robert De Niro‘s jailhouse wailing and wall-punching scene in Raging Bull. And then imagine a followup moment in which Joe Pesci’s Joey sneaks into Jake La Motta’s hotel room as he’s sleeping, and then climbs onto the bed, drops his pants and takes a dump on his brother’s face. And then Jake leaps up and beats the crap out of Joey and runs into the bathroom to clean his face off, going “Eeoohhwww! I can’t take this! Eeooohhww!”
I’ve just described the essence of Casey Affleck‘s I’m Not Here (Magnolia, 9.10), the Joaquin Phoenix meltdown doc which screened this afternoon at the Toronto Film Festival.
The face-shitting scene actually happens (Pheonix really seems to take it in the face — his fired assistant Anton is the squatter), and De Niro’s Miami Dade jailhouse scene is matched when Pheonix jumps out of a cab after taping his infamous Late Night with David Letterman visit, and then scales a small Central Park hillside and begins crying about how he’s become a joke, how his life is over, how he’s fucked things up beyond recognition.
Right now you’re asking yourself “Gee, why didn’t Martin Scorsese think of this 30 years ago?”…right?
I can’t recount the history of the Phoenix meltdown and deliberate career collapse of ’08 and ’09. I can’t do it! I’m sorry but my fingers are refusing to type the words. Look it up or whatever.
The bearded bellowing pig that we see in I’m Still Here is what guys really look and sound like when they’ve decided to slowly end their lives in installments or chapters or whatever. They vent anger, wallow in melodrama, pollute themselves, rage about how brutal and lacerating their insights are, etc.
It doesn’t matter if parts of I’m Still Here were staged for “entertainment’s sake.” I don’t think very much of it was. I think that that Phoenix’s endlessly discussed psychological celebrity breakdown (via ego, drugs and hubris) is mostly real. But again — it doesn’t matter because the man is toast. His self-loathing is so acute it’s difficult to accept even as he acts it out with obviously intense conviction. He makes himself fat, grows a beard, does coke, falls off stages, drinks, smokes cigarettes in each and every scene — he’s a revolting bloated clown. And now he’s the first award-nominated, formerly respected actor to be shown literally being shat upon.
I’m Still Here is brave but appalling. It’s never “boring”, but is probably one of the most loathsome things I’ve ever sat through, and yet I’m perversely glad that I’ve finally seen it. I can now walk around and make faces as I tell people what I thought of it.
Somewhere around the three-quarter mark I started to laugh and couldn’t stop. It was when Phoenix leaned over a toilet and began vomiting some kind greenish-brown slop, three or four spews in a row. “Wheee!!….I’m sitting here in a Toronto theatre watching Joaquin Phoenix puke!!” I was telling myself. “Here I am! And there he is!”
It’s not an “act” — it’s a serious tragedy, and I feel dirty for having watched it. The poor guy. The misery he’s put himself through, and for what? So he can prove to the world what an inconsequential rapper-poet he is? I myself need to run into a bathroom and splash hot water on my face and go “Eew! I can’t take this! Eeooohhww!”
Joaquin Phoenix has shot his wad with this film. No one will ever be able to accept him as an everyman in a movie ever again. No one will want to watch him in anything. He’s a dead man. The only way he can redeem himself is to take flying lessons, steal a jet and fly it over to Iran and crash it into the home of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.