Joaquin Phoenix Hires Hookers, Babbles on ‘Letterman’: Movies

In “I’m Still Here,” Joaquin Phoenix is a bloated, coke-snorting, hooker-hiring movie star who berates assistants and babbles incoherently about his artistic pretensions.

Are we watching an Andy Kaufman-like hoax or the real public disintegration of a celebrity? Is it a documentary or a mockumentary? Those questions are deliberately left unanswered by Casey Affleck, who is both the film’s director and Phoenix’s brother-in-law.

I think it’s a put-on, if only because choosing to view the film as satire makes the 106 minutes of unrelenting obnoxiousness bearable, sometimes even enjoyable. I’ll credit Phoenix’s talent as an actor for the few moments I doubted my suspicions.

Co-written by Affleck and Phoenix, the film is presented as a year in the actor’s life. And what a year it was.

Bemoaning his Hollywood career as “fraudulent” (“I’m stuck in a self-imposed prison of characterization”), Phoenix confides to Affleck’s camera that he intends to quit acting to pursue his true love, hip-hop music. He will spend 2009 focusing on a rap career, with this documentary intended to chronicle his artistic reinvention.

Anyone who saw Phoenix’s appearance that year on “Late Show With David Letterman” knows the reinvention looked like a cry for intervention. The awkward appearance, in which Letterman grew increasingly irritated with Phoenix’s dazed answers, reminded me of Kaufman’s loony days posing as a professional wrestler.

Meeting Puffy

The Letterman appearance becomes the denouement of “I’m Still Here,” and leads to the film’s most riveting scene, as Phoenix suffers what looks to be a genuine post-show panic attack. This was the moment I thought maybe Phoenix was showing us the real him after all.

Too many other scenes, though, seem staged. When Ben Stiller visits Phoenix to pitch a role in “Greenberg,” Phoenix insults the comedian, and Stiller’s nervous reaction could have been lifted from one of his Focker movies. Nor was I convinced that Phoenix’s encounter with Sean “Puffy” Combs, in which the rapper crushes the dreams of the wannabe, was legit.

Ultimately, though, it’s Phoenix’s lack of musical talent that does the most damage. Could even the most narcissistic movie star be delusional enough to think that these idiotic rap performances (they’re on the level of “American Idol” audition outtakes) are worthy of presentation? Could a loving brother-in- law knowingly expose his friend as a talentless fraud?

So we’re left with satire. Here, Phoenix and Affleck seem to be saying, is what becomes of a life lived in public. The artist turns ugly. He loses focus. He screams at friends and underlings (one of whom takes revenge in a way so vile it’s best left undescribed). “I’m Still Here” makes its points all too vividly.

“I’m Still Here,” from Magnolia Pictures, is playing in New York and Los Angeles. Rating: **

‘Legendary’

Pro wrestler John Cena grapples with family drama in “Legendary” and gets pinned to the mat. Charmless and unconvincing even while portraying a wrestler, he gives a hamstrung performance in a movie that needs all the strength it can get.

Cena plays Mike Chetley, a former high-school wrestling star and long-absent brother of 16-year-old Cal (Devon Graye). Scrawny Cal wants to follow family tradition by joining the wrestling team, and tracks down his no-good brother to learn the ropes, as it were.

But Mike wants none of it. He’s embittered by injury and the death of his father, who was killed in a car accident en route to a wrestling match during a storm. Mom Chetley (Patricia Clarkson, trying hard to shoulder the acting burden) spends most of the film pleading with Cal to avoid the family wrestling curse, though she seems to have no grudge against inclement weather.

Glover’s Mystery Man

Loaded with sports movie chestnuts, “Legendary” aims for the “Rudy” audience, but lacks the underdog appeal of that much better film. From the beginning, Cal seems nothing more than a remarkably well-adjusted young man.

Directed by Mel Damski and written by John Posey (who takes a small role as a coach), the slick and predictable “Legendary” contains no surprises in its 107 minutes, unless you count the involvement of actor Danny Glover.

In an unfortunate turn, Glover plays Red, a mystery man who appears occasionally to offer sage advice. Another of cinema’s seemingly endless supply of mystical black men who exist for the benefit of young white heroes, Red is the most tiresome of the film’s many cliches.

“Legendary,” from Samuel Goldwyn Films, is playing across the U.S. Rating: **


What the Stars Mean:

****          Excellent
***           Good
**            Average
*             Poor
(No stars)    Worthless

(Greg Evans is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer on the story: Rick Warner in New York at rwarner1@bloomberg.net.

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