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River Phoenix: His Final Hours

Sometimes, even The A.V. Club isn’t impervious to the sexy allure of ostensible cultural garbage. Which is why there’s I Watched This On Purpose, our feature exploring the impulse to spend time with trashy-looking yet in some way irresistible entertainments, playing the long odds in hopes of a real reward. And a good time.

Cultural infamy/Curiosity factor: Three DVDs arrived a few weeks ago in one package, all bearing the same logo in the corner: “Final 24: a dramatization.” The subjects: Marvin Gaye, River Phoenix, and Hunter S. Thompson. “His final hours,” each DVD says, ominously, at the top. Poorly simulated look-alikes stare from the covers. “Oh no,” groaned pretty much everyone who saw these DVDs sitting on my desk, because it was clear that we were looking at cheap re-creations of celebrity deaths. Indeed, the world may have sunk this low—not only did someone think of doing this, but apparently there’s a market for it.

Some quick research revealed that Final 24 wasn’t just some cheapie straight-to-DVD exploitation, but rather a series—15 episodes!—made for Canadian TV. That’s right, Canada. You thought our north-of-the-border neighbors were all about class and speaking French and giving health care to all their citizens and cheering on the children of the various DeGrassi schools. It turns out they’ve got some bad TV apples, too, who produced hourlong specials not just on the three already mentioned, but also on the sordid deaths of Sid Vicious, John Belushi, Tupac Shakur, and John F. Kennedy Jr. (?!) 

So naturally I expected/hoped for the worst when popping the River Phoenix episode into the DVD player. Based on the ridiculous, overblown re-enactment photos on the box, plus the show’s taglines (“These are no ordinary biographies. These are psychological detective stories attempting to uncover the mystery of why the celebrity died.”), I assumed I’d be watching a dramatization of what the title promises—the final 24—with bad actors replacing the real-life characters.

The viewing experience: Guess what? These are ordinary biographies, just peppered with the terrible re-enactments I was hoping would make them worthwhile, in a cringeworthy way. They’re just a shade more shameless than True Hollywood Stories, though I imagine that series is probably kicking itself for not having a “death countdown” clock when returning from commercial breaks. (Final 24, I should note, aired on the Biography Channel in the U.S., which I mistakenly thought was a grade above this type of thing.)

Anyway, to the action: A British voiceover immediately tries to add a touch of class to River Phoenix: His Final Hours. The narrator pronounces Los Angeles “Los Ann-jell-eez,” in that very posh way. It’s all downhill from there. We quickly see the actor playing Phoenix lying in his bed with his guitar, to illustrate the point that even though Phoenix was best known as an actor, his passion was music. So passionate was he about his band that he slept with his acoustic guitar, rather than a groupie. That’s dedication. And the countdown begins.

Apparently Phoenix was in the midst of shooting a movie when he overdosed and died in October 1993, and who better to speak to his state of mind than a Hollywood leech named George Sluizer, director of said film, Dark Blood? He’s one of two types of talking head in this sleaze-fest—the Hollywood guy who’ll do anything for publicity. (The other type, which we’ll meet later, are the so-called “friends” who want to tell Phoenix’s story, y’know, to get it out there, and not for money or anything, even though they look fried.)

Anyway, let me fast-forward to the only really entertaining (if that’s the right word) parts of River Phoenix: His Final Hours—the re-enactments. The best one features a scene in which a bunch of Phoenix’s friends and family come together in a hotel room to “party.” Apparently the producers of Final 24 think that a “party” means a shitty room at the Comfort Inn, in which a bunch of people don’t say anything, but kinda laugh at nothing. Oh, and Phoenix entertains them by strumming his guitar and jumping on the bed. Oh, what fun they’re having!

Of course we all know that River Phoenix had a lot of famous friends, including Johnny Depp and Flea. Presumably Central Casting could’ve found some better impersonators of those two celebrities than these, don’t you think?

Now I don’t know if there’s any truth to this—and I can’t imagine there is—but Final 24 posits that Phoenix started the drug binge that killed him when Flea said Phoenix was not going to be allowed to jam with the all-star band onstage at the Viper Room on that fateful night. He was apparently so crushed that he wasn’t going to join Flea, Gibby Haynes, and Johnny Depp that he ran to the bathroom and slammed some cocaine and heroin—a.k.a. a speedball. A cop interviewed for this show puts it bluntly (and stupidly): “There were more than enough musicians, so he could not get up onto the stage.” Here’s a clip of the cop, plus a conversation between the Flea impersonator (who’s incredibly buff for a Flea impersonator!) and the Phoenix impersonator.

This clip, I just wanted to share with you because I find the quote so profound in its idiocy. This is one of River’s friends, talking about heroin.

“When it works, it works great. When it doesn’t, you die. It’s like Russian roulette.” My question is: In what circumstances does Russian roulette work great?

Anyway, the show eventually told me “River Phoenix has less than an hour to live,” and I started to feel dirty. The next reenactment pushed me over the edge and back into reality: An actor portraying Joaquin Phoenix—who watched his brother die on a Hollywood sidewalk—frantically runs to a pay phone to call a paramedic. River Phoenix: His Final Hours, in an ultimate display of class, uses the actual audio from the 911 call. This shit isn’t funny, even the parts that are.

A quick scroll through the Marvin Gaye episode reveals pretty much the same results, but with far more family members willing to talk on camera. (Maybe they weren’t told it was for a show turning his murder into a quickie drama?) In any case, it made me think of one good thing: the PBS American Masters episode about Gaye’s life. Go rent that instead.

How much of the experience wasn’t a total waste of time? Okay, I’ll admit that the celebrity-impersonator bits were pretty funny, if only for a glimpse into that weird part of Hollywood, so let’s say two minutes. Otherwise, the very existence of these things is just depressing. At least other bio-type shows have the decency to pretend they’re celebrating somebody’s life before getting to the “good stuff.” These are just gross.