I'm Still Here
is like being immersed in a weird, elaborately staged inside joke between two people who are utterly convinced of said joke's hilarity. The two, in this case, are actors Joaquin Phoenix
and Casey Affleck
. If you've paid any attention to entertainment media in the last year and a half or so, undoubtedly you've caught some measure of wind of Phoenix's purported “downward spiral,” with his bizarre retirement from the acting world, his claims of a desire to delve into making hip-hop music, and his various peculiar public appearances on Letterman
and such. All of this has either been documented for, or been specifically acted-out for the benefit of I'm Still Here
, Affleck's “documentary” on this bizarre year of Phoenix's life. No one can seem to agree on whether or not this was a true breakdown of a once-talented actor, or an attempt at Andy Kaufman
levels of prankdom, but whatever the case, the fortunate truth that the movie is fairly entertaining regardless of what you end up believing.
I'll come straight out and say that I fall into the camp that believes this is all a bunch of hooey. There are too many things in I'm Still Here
that feel a little too perfectly captured, too fortuitously funny to have simply come out of real life. But before getting to any of that, a bit of catch-up for those not well-versed in the recent history of Joaquin Phoenix. You likely know Phoenix from movies such as Gladiator
and his Academy Award-nominated performance in Walk the Line
. After a lengthy bit of home movie footage showing Phoenix in his childhood days, we find Phoenix now-ish, at the early stages of dishevelment. He wanders around the trees near his home, rambling excitedly and nonsensically about his hatred of acting, his desire for greater creative expression, and some such else. All the while, he's pacing aimlessly, dressed in a tattered sweatshirt and the early stages of a mountain-ready beard. And this is only the beginning.
The long, strange trip of Joaquin Phoenix leads him into building a home studio and a confusing decision to take up hip-hop as a new career, despite never having shown any real leanings toward the art form previously, nor demonstrating much talent for it throughout the course of the movie--his rhymes feel sandwiched somewhere in between the respective rap careers of Brian Austin Green
and Rodney Dangerfield
, respectively. To hear Phoenix tell it, his flow has always been there. To hear those around him tell it (primarily his entourage of all-too-patient assistants), they believe in his new career choice because, well, what else are they going to do? If they don't support him, they're out of a job.
It's not worth recounting everything that happens in I'm Still Here
, primarily because the bulk of what's happened has already been flung around the media ad nauseum. In short, he starts recording songs, gets frustrated with having to explain to people that, yes, he is really retired from acting, makes frequent, uncomfortable attempts to get P. Diddy
to produce his record, makes an ill-advised appearance on Letterman
(it's entirely worth watching online, if you haven't seen it yet) makes only a scant few live appearances (and, at one, ends up fighting someone in the crowd after only one song), and more or less alienates every single person around him.
And yet Affleck remains there through the whole ordeal, camera firmly fixated on Phoenix's increasingly wild-eyed and jungle-like face as his life comes crumbling down. There is an incongruity to that fact and what we see on screen. Phoenix is portrayed as a colossal jackass, firmly rooted in his belief that he is an untapped source of preternatural musical talent, and when anyone doubts him, he flies off the handle like a petulant, drug-addled child. He frequently verbally abuses his staff members (and occasionally physically abuses them as well), rambles on and on about how the world refuses to take him seriously, and when he finally starts to see how completely boneheaded this whole ordeal has been, he simply lets it all happen on film, despite his claims of extreme embarrassment and humiliation. Affleck, in case you didn't know, is Phoenix's brother-in-law, so a certain amount of unfettered access makes sense, but given the ego we're presented with, it makes little sense for Phoenix to allow this project to continue.
But it does, for more than a year, and in that regard, I simply cannot buy into the notion that this was not done with wholehearted knowingness by both parties. To their credit, even if you don't buy the hoax, the movie still works reasonably well. This is legitimately one of Phoenix's more fascinating performances. He's a mixture of a confused stoner, a mumble-mouthed transient, and a ludicrously egotistical artist all rolled up into one doughy creature. The excitement he shows in different scenarios, be it the possibility of getting a meeting with his great white whale (Diddy) or the impending ability to smell the assholes of a pair of call girls he's just ordered up (I couldn't make this shit up if I tried), is believable and fascinating to watch.
It's equally fascinating to see him react to other Hollywood talents who try to bring him back into the fold, although these scenes are by far the least buy-worthy of the movie. Ben Stiller
coming in to try to convince Phoenix to take a role in Greenberg
rings a little too much like his other “himself” appearances in comedy sketches, and an epically baffling speech by Edward James Olmos
is simply too perfect and amazing to be anything but a work of fiction. And Diddy, bless his soul, can't really act. But he does make some pretty funny faces when he finally gets a listen to Phoenix's rudimentary rhymes.
If I'm Still Here
has any failing, it's that it starts to wear out its welcome long before Phoenix does. By the time his assistants are literally shitting on his face in the middle of the night, we've already been subjected to endless verbal diarrhea and insane antics from the man. And despite a mostly spectacularly depicted downfall, the movie doesn't end with much of a bang, so much as an elongated, vaguely pointless whimper, which ultimately makes you wonder what, exactly the point of all of this was. Was it to make some kind of commentary on the ridiculousness of the artist's ego? To expose the entertainment media for its all-too-eager gullibility? Or was it just an excuse for Phoenix and Affleck to fuck off for an entire year, while punking the world in the process? It's impossible to say, though at the very least, the pair have put that year of fucking off to relatively good use. I'm Still Here
might be an ultimately pointless and absurd endeavor, but watching Phoenix adopt this new persona whole hog is really something to behold, and from a performance perspective, is absolutely deserving of praise.
Unless, of course, it was all real. In which case...yikes