I'm Still Here
Phoenix goes up in flames: Actor erupts in role-playing mockumentary
In “I’m Still Here,’’ the actor and movie star Joaquin Phoenix plays an actor and movie star named Joaquin Phoenix who has a nervous breakdown, quits the business, grows a beard that would qualify him for immediate membership in the Taliban, and enters into the most ill-advised rap career since Dee Dee Ramone. It’s possible that this is Phoenix’s greatest performance. It’s also possible he’ll never be allowed near a movie camera again.
Yes, the whole thing was a hoax, or, more precisely, an exercise in public role-playing: The blurted retirement announcement, the “Late Night With David Letterman’’ debacle, the nightclub performances where audiences stood slack-jawed as their cellphone cameras recorded a slow-motion train wreck. Casey Affleck’s mockumentary carries credits that acknowledge the fiction: actors playing many of the characters, the words “written by Casey Affleck and Joaquin Phoenix.’’ It is not real. Sort of.
I’m not sure how to position this for you, the moviegoer who just wants to know if the movie’s any good. Parts of it are close to genius; most of it is actively torturous to watch. On the theoretical level, the movie’s an interesting but half-baked exercise in persona deconstruction, celebrity politics, and meta-meta-entertainment that toys with concepts finessed better by Andy Kaufman and Sacha Baron Cohen, not to mention the 2007 Bob Dylan biopic “I’m Not There’’ from which the new movie nicks its title.
If the ideas are shopworn, the filmmaking’s worse: Faux-doc sloppiness taken to an extreme of handheld self-indulgence. There’s also the problem that Phoenix isn’t the kind of actor we associate with a stunt like this. He has miscast himself so thoroughly that at times a sort of celebrity optical illusion takes over and you feel like you’re watching Zach Galifianakis from “The Hangover.’’
On the level of performance, though, the movie’s pretty amazing. Early in “I’m Still Here,’’ Phoenix decides he’s “tired of playing this ‘Joaquin Phoenix’ character’’ and veers off on a yearlong quest to find “the real me’’ that involves every wrong decision a man could make. It’s as close to performance art as the movies get: the Phoenix that Phoenix plays is a vile celebrity infant who berates his entourage in the foulest language imaginable, snorts cocaine off a hooker’s breast, writes cringingly bad rap lyrics about star entitlement, and otherwise dares you to stay in your seat. He’s so repugnant that the film climaxes, as it were, with a fed-up member of the star’s entourage defecating on Phoenix’s head (or appearing to), and your first thought is “Well, he had that coming.’’
It’s not clear who’s in on the joke. Sean “Diddy’’ Combs looks stricken as he listens to the actor’s inane backing tracks, but I do believe I spy a tongue in that cheek. Ben Stiller can’t not be aware of the game afoot. Letterman was probably not told, the better to cue his snark, and the reporters and clubgoers who interact with Phoenix are clearly in the dark. Our response is part of the “fun,’’ too, so how does it feel to be mistreated by the stars we feel should serve at our sufferance?
That’s only one reason why this will be a profoundly hated movie by 99 percent of the public, who won’t understand and certainly won’t care that Phoenix is playing a part. From now on, most people will just assume he is that guy, and I’m not sure they’re misunderstanding his intent. There’s no coming back from a movie and a reinvention this extreme, and when you see footage early on of the very young Phoenix as part of a family song-and-dance act, you sense a sheer exhaustion with public life that may be a factor.
“I’m Still Here’’ is a willful act of career suicide whose primary miscalculation lies in thinking we’re interested. In a way, though, it’s even more than that. In the final sequences, after “Joaquin Phoenix’’ has seen his rap dreams fall apart and realized the public joke he has become, he disappears to Panama to be with his dad (played by Affleck’s dad). He literally turns his back on us and on the camera; in the final scenes of the film, we no longer see his face. He walks into a river and down its length for long, long minutes, wading deeper until he disappears from sight, and whatever we think we know of Joaquin Phoenix — or of any famous person — seems to dissolve and flow away. “I’m Still Here’’ drives a stake not just into a movie star’s persona but into identity itself.
Unless he’s putting us on.