I'm Still Here
Directed by Casey Affleck
There are two possible ways one can understand Joaquin Phoenix in I'm Still Here, Casey Affleck's supposed "documentary" about his friend/brother-in-law's ill-advised switch from lauded thespian to clownish rapper: either sometime last year Phoenix committed the mother of all career suicides (there've been worse, but none this lovingly recorded), or else he's the greatest actor in the world. Whichever way one wants to see it, or whichever way it really is, there's no looking back for JP, as the man so humbly calls himself. If I'm Still Here is real, he'll likely never live it down; if it isn't, there's no topping it—he just nailed the role of a lifetime.
The film begins at the end of 2008, when Phoenix decides to retire from the "fucking self-imposed prison of characterization" to pursue his dream of busting rhymes. His personality is captured, or delineated, almost immediately: donning a hood over the first scruff of what will soon become his infamous LA Woman-era Jim Morrison beard, while abashedly avoiding the camera to which he addresses a mumbled rant about his innermost frustrations and longings, Phoenix comes across as simply confused; complaining that his last performance in a Paul Newman memorial tribute has been overshadowed by a larger role given to Affleck, he's an arrogant, self-absorbed asshole. From there the snowball tumbles down the hill at astonishing speed. A predictable parade of hookers, cocaine, and non-stop prima donna tirades show Phoenix at his best; P. Diddy's blank-faced astonishment as he listens to Phoenix's demo and a constantly abused assistant's revenge-defecation into Phoenix's sleeping mouth plow straight into train wreck territory.
Until Phoenix completely bottoms out, much of I'm Still Here manages to be embarrassingly funny—in a This is Spinal Tap way if fake, in a Some Kind of Monster way if real. And since there's no blame to spread around as in those films—though Affleck seems to be playing a devious off-screen enabler and/or co-conspirator—the focus is on a single, increasingly isolated man's vapid, narcissistic hi-jinks. "It's a movie premiere with less pussy," Phoenix whines about President Obama's inauguration, which he sleeps through after another night of debauchery. "Life is not a Christmas day," he screams at his handlers when faced with another setback in his ever-delayed meeting with Diddy. "I want to smell her butthole," he giggles like a teenage boy about a just-hired prostitute. It's all too ridiculous, all too perfect a portrait of spoiled celebrity. Even if there didn't exist rumors that I'm Still Here was a hoax, you'd still have to wonder about the staged lugubriousness of a scene in which Phoenix releases a bird from his cupped hands, or one where Edward James Olmos offers our hero perspective by comparing our lives to water drops on a mountain (trying to explain this to his friends, Phoenix butchers the metaphor).
But after what amounts to an interminable series of choppily cut, decontextualized fragments of Phoenix obnoxiously rambling, shouting, horseplaying, and alienating everyone in sight, I'm Still Here actually achieves a level of poignancy. What level that poignancy operates on, however, is never entirely certain. On one hand, there's an echo chamber quality to its immersion in the paranoiac world of Tinseltown image-manufacturing/manipulation that wedges the film firmly up its own posterior—what might have originally begun as an excuse to freak out unsuspecting fellow Hollywooders like Ben Stiller (pitching a script to JP while the latter dons a shirt over his hair) goes over the edge the moment Affleck and Phoenix start investigating the leak to the press about the possible hoax. But even the most bullshit-resistant viewer should be somewhat moved once Phoenix realizes Diddy has rebuffed his atrocious mic skills and rides toward his notorious Letterman interview in a state of crippling self-doubt. As the smug and condescending Letterman mocks a Phoenix clearly overwhelmed by the looking glass to which he has in one way or another irretrievably consigned himself, you can't help but feel for the guy; this pity culminates in a disastrous Miami performance (Phoenix jumps from the stage to fight a heckling fan, then vomits out his guts backstage) and retreat to South America, neither funny, each thoroughly sad despite the preceding unsympathetic brattiness on display. Though I'm Still Here bears every trace of being a prank—several of the people featured in it, for instance, are played by actors—Phoenix's nervous bewilderment and miserable devastation ("I'm just gonna be a joke forever!" he hollers after Letterman) are at the very least so convincingly evoked that matters of reality and unreality recede to the background. What we have here—again, one way or another—is a veritable character, a veritably vulnerable if questionably sincere Hamlet for a post-Andy Kaufman age when falsity isn't at issue so much as how well and how long one fakes it.
Opens September 10