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Thursday, August 21, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 74.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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Joaquin Phoenix either does or doesn't fall apart in I'm Still Here
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If Phoenix is so troubled, he needs help.
If Phoenix is so troubled, he needs help.

Most clips on America's Funniest Home Videos are my ecstatic guilty pleasure - the barfing brides, the collapsing Christmas trees. But I dread the practical jokes, as when the poor guy cries upon learning he hasn't really won the lottery. Hoaxes are cruel, and professional practical jokers, from Punk'd's Ashton Kutcher to the Yes Men, just depress me. I make an exception for the transcendently entertaining Andy Kaufman. Ashton Kutcher isn't Andy Kaufman.

So if Joaquin Phoenix is only kidding around, I'd like my 108 minutes back, please. That's the running time of I'm Still Here, which appears to be a documentary about Phoenix's troubled life. The acclaimed actor, you'll remember, caused a sensation last year with a disturbing, much-lampooned Letterman appearance. Between agonizing pauses, Phoenix affirmed that he was retiring from acting and beginning a career as a rapper.

The Letterman appearance is one of a series of climactic scenes near the end of I'm Still Here, whose amateurish camera work is less impressive than that of many America's Funniest Home Videos clips. (The film was directed by Casey Affleck, who is Ben Affleck's brother and Phoenix's brother-in-law.) Before those climactic scenes, which include a long vomiting sequence and the sight of one man shitting on another, we see Phoenix rambling incoherently, humiliating underlings, snorting white powder, gleefully shopping for hookers on the Internet, and wondering aloud what the hookers' "little buttholes are going to smell like."

We also see Phoenix in uncomfortable meetings with Ben Stiller, who would like Phoenix to act in Greenberg, and with Sean Combs, whom Phoenix is trying to hire as his music producer. It's actually pretty funny when Phoenix plays a CD of his terrible rapping for Combs, whose facial expression is priceless.

I laughed quite a bit at I'm Still Here, in fact, and that doesn't make me proud. If Phoenix is indeed troubled, then he needs help, and it's sick to release a documentary showing him at his worst. I suspect the film is a hoax, though. A clue comes in the closing credits, which list some performers as themselves, others as characters. If the film is a gag, along with the Letterman appearance, then we have been punk'd, and well played, sir!

Or, more charitably, Phoenix and Affleck have crafted a satire about celebrity and its corrosive effects. But there's nothing new about that message, and if I'm going to watch a gross-out movie, I'd rather watch one by a master of the form, like John Waters. Joaquin Phoenix isn't John Waters.

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