In his directing debut, actor Affleck films his Oscar-winning brother-in-law Joaquin Phoenix during the period of time Phoenix announced his retirement from acting and the assumption of a career as a hip-hop artist. During this time, Phoenix had his infamous public flame-out on Late Show With David Letterman
, and it’s as if I’m Still Here
provides some before-and-after contextualization for that widely seen and discussed act of self-destruction. Or maybe not. Perhaps what we are seeing is truly a fly-on-the-wall documentary about a celebrity undergoing a life crisis, or maybe it’s all just a hoax, just like any other fabricated story or “mockumentary” that inserts its constructed fiction into the contours of reality. At the time of this writing, neither Affleck nor Phoenix has ’fessed up to any chicanery, so it seems the duo want viewers to accept I’m Still Here
at face value – in which case, it’s a sad, troubling portrait of a brilliant actor in a state of decrepitude and self-delusion. Vastly overweight and sporting a bushy beard and unkempt hair, Phoenix is on full display while constantly smoking who-knows-what, snorting cocaine, and trailing Sean “P. Diddy” Combs from Los Angeles to New York, Miami, and Washington, D.C., in a vain effort to convince the rap mogul to produce Phoenix’s album. Combs, like everyone else who hears Phoenix’s rhymes, seems genuinely baffled by the actor’s decision to trade a career at which he’s exceptionally good for one at which he simply is not. Are we to believe that the man who nailed Johnny Cash’s singing voice in Walk the Line
is so self-deluded as to think his mumbled hip-hop music is artistic and marketable? More likely, the answer is no, which means that the entire movie is a set-up. Clues to support this contention lie in the final credits (in which Phoenix and Affleck both receive writing and producing credits) and in various scenes that seem improbable had they not been staged or preplanned (in particular, I’m thinking of the memorable revenge taken by Phoenix’s abused assistant, Anton). Certainly, there’s some truth in Phoenix’s desire to escape the imprisonment of characterization, to escape himself. But, holy Joaq-a-mole: That’s hardly a unique situation, and Phoenix adds nothing new to the discussion, except maybe a bitch-slap to all the celebrities whose public meltdowns pale in comparison. The inner self Phoenix reveals is an egocentric, abusive, untalented, disheveled boor. It’s hard to imagine anyone who would want to spend time with this character, in truth or fiction. However, the theory of the film being a contrivance at least lets Affleck (whose sound and images are rough, at best) off the hook for exploiting his brother-in-law’s breakdown for his own benefit. I’m Still Here
may actually be Phoenix’s best performance ever or a pathetic document of wasted talent. Either way, it’s hard not to feel punk’d and trapped amid the company of jerks.