Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Sofia Coppola’s name.
“I’m Still Here,” that movie about how much Joaquin Phoenix hates being Joaquin Phoenix, opens at the State Theater tomorrow. And it serves as a preview for a holiday movie season filled with a surprising level of upper-crust narcissism for a country that’s supposedly still getting over a recession. Not since the Great Depression has there been a greater discrepancy between the lifestyles of the general American public and the lifestyles depicted in the movies being marketed to them.
Let’s start with that aforementioned self-loathing documentary, or maybe it’s a mockumentary. More likely it’s simply a fuck-you-mentary. I haven’t had the privilege of sitting through Casey Affleck’s wonderful social experiment, but everything I’ve read and heard about it tells me there are only a few things that are confirmed about its authenticity:
1. It features scenes in which Phoenix — he of the dual Oscar nominations — does drugs, engages in explicit acts with various women and tells everyone how much he wants to abandon all his acting prestige and fame.
2. It expects you to care about his problems.
Now don’t get me wrong, there’s a very good chance that Phoenix really did have an awful breakdown and needs actual psychiatric care, in which case, yes, he would be very much deserving of the public’s sympathy. (Why his own brother-in-law would choose to distribute a film about his sorrows for profit instead of seeking professional help is another issue entirely.) But there’s an equally good chance that at least a large chunk of “I’m Still Here” is a sham designed to prey on the audience’s perceived sympathies for rich, famous people. And that’s what troubles me.
Phoenix was never an A-list celebrity, necessarily — at least, not along the lines of Johnny Depp or George Clooney. He was someone who could have legitimately announced his early retirement from acting without raising too much of a fuss… after all, we can’t be expected to keep tabs on every single name in Hollywood that penetrates the collective consciousness. That’s what makes the very idea of “I’m Still Here” appalling in its own way: Right there in the title is the implication that we — as a nation — were wringing our hands in utter worry over the plight of this guy.
“Don’t worry, everyone,” that movie’s poster is announcing, with its extreme close-up of a scraggly, homeless-looking Phoenix. “I’m still here. But I’m a little worse for the wear, and because I’m a celebrity, I want to air my psychological problems for all the world. Because you see, it wasn’t enough for me to make more money and enjoy more success than all of you people. I also needed to let you know just how little my life was satisfying me.”
The feel-bad-for-the-celebrity gimmick is nothing new in cinema. In fact, some of the greatest works of the medium (“Sunset Boulevard,” “All About Eve,” etc.) have come out of that very concept. And earlier this summer we got “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work,” a slightly more genuine documentary about a celebrity figure, which earned rave reviews for its depiction of the fickle nature of fame. But when the same subject keeps reappearing, even when it’s supposedly being handled tactfully, someone in Hollywood should probably start answering questions about just how far we want to “escape” in our movies.
Over Christmas break we’ll be treated to a double dose of Problems of the Rich and Famous. There’s Sofia Coppola’s “Somewhere,” a “Funny People”-esque drama about a wealthy actor (Stephen Dorff) lost in his giant mansion, who must have a Big Think about his life when his young daughter (Elle Fanning) re-enters it. And then there’s James L. Brooks’s “How Do You Know,” a love triangle where two out of the three corners are professional athletes (played by Reese Witherspoon and Owen Wilson). To be fair, the third corner of the triangle is a successful businessman (Paul Rudd) on the verge of losing his company, so maybe that will make everything OK. How do you know?
The presence of “Somewhere” isn’t that surprising considering the source. After all, Coppola was behind the decade’s defining actor-in-existential-crisis drama, 2003’s “Lost in Translation.” And it makes perfect sense that a filmmaker growing up within the Coppola family would want to return time and time again to these familiar themes. “Write what you know,” my creative writing teachers have told me since elementary school. If all you know is the upper class, odds are good your works might have a pretty consistent theme.
“Somewhere” recently won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival — the top prize. Head juror Quentin Tarantino said the vote was unanimous. So for the moment, at least, the subgenre of movies about rich-people problems is here to stay. But the issue at hand is how much longer audiences will want to see movies like these.
I admit that all this bitterness is based on speculation, and that these movies could easily surprise me by speaking to audiences of all creeds. But regardless of the quality of films like this, what are we left with? Celebrities bein’ celebrities, not even trying to make a connection with us lowly commoners. Or worse, these are their Barton Fink-like attempts to connect with us in as isolated a manner as possible.
Eventually we’ll probably realize that Joaquin Phoenix and Sofia Coppola aren’t the best refractors of the popular experience. I know it’s the movie industry’s job to present us with a wide variety of stories and a cross-section of the human experience. Celebrities, even those tortured by levels of wealth that most people in the country would kill for, are still a part of that. But it doesn’t have to be our job to sympathize with them.