starring Joaquin Phoenix, Antony Langdon, Casey Affleck, Sean "P. Diddy" Combs
screenplay by Casey Affleck and Joaquin Phoenix
directed by Casey Affleck
by Ian Pugh It's far too easy to believe that Casey Affleck's I'm Still Here hinges on whether or not its subject has perpetrated a hoax. Joaquin Phoenix grows a lunatic's beard, declares he's quitting acting, and starts planning a hip-hop career? Surely, he can't be serious. But here's how it ends, kids: yes, I guess you could call it a "put-on" in the strictest sense of the word--yet at the same time, he is deadly serious. What needs to be understood about Phoenix, and this film, is that there was a kernel of truth to everything the man mumbled through that maniacal persona. I do believe that Phoenix is tired of acting (or, at least, tired of stardom), and, for his farewell performance, he's blurred the line between actor and role so completely as to obliterate all our preconceived notions of who he is and what he is supposed to represent. The false Phoenix--the bedraggled, abusive prophet spouting non sequiturs--is, for all intents and purposes, the "real" Phoenix, the iconic artist who pulls a disappearing act by forcing the art and the iconography to consume his entire being. You can't call I'm Still Here a mockumentary, exactly, because, inside and outside of the "act," that is precisely what happened. And what came out of it is a harrowing thought exercise about artistic failure and the baggage of celebrity.
Call it "performance art," if you must. Brashly announcing his retirement to entertainment reporters during a red-carpet event, Phoenix set himself up for failure with surgical precision. We doubt that he has anything to say in his subsequent dabbling in hip-hop beyond the unspecific desire to "make art;" he recites his lyrics in a scratchy half-shout that doesn't boast much regard for meter or tempo. Phoenix grows more frustrated, self-destructive, and dangerous as he fails to get the kind of attention he wants, waiting for that one call from Diddy that would change everything and exploding when he can't earn anyone's respect on command. He draws himself further inward, chattering to himself in fractured sentences and coming to blows with his assistants, who are helpless to do damage control. These sequences are outrageous, terrifying, and, yes, occasionally hilarious. But as everything comes crashing down, as Phoenix eventually suffers a nervous breakdown upon realizing what he's thrown away, the "reality" that Affleck and Phoenix are trying to represent is thrown into sharp relief. The ambition, the sense of entitlement, the dawning recognition of failure--they're all far too familiar for comfort.
I'm Still Here thrives on an unshakeable sense of existential dread, haunted by the question of whether anyone (an actor, an artist, a man) can ever really break away from their assigned role(s) in life. The more Phoenix tries to distance himself from his film career, the more he reminds us that he will always be an actor--which in turn alienates him from the human race entirely. Throughout his quest to be taken seriously as a musician, he invokes his success as an actor (and the favoritism he believes he deserves) with tiring regularity. His incoherent complaints about the shabby treatment he receives from the commoners wedged between gleeful indulgence in hookers and blow, Phoenix becomes a parody of a parody, the kind of self-centred Hollywood dickhead we love to read about in the tabloids. It is, ultimately, as much a fantasy as the nice, clean-cut fellow we recognized from pandering interviews on the talk-show circuit. And here's the thing: we all ate that fantasy up without question.
The American public took such umbrage at the actor's sudden transformation that they were ready to dismiss his claims out of hand. He would either turn out to be a musical washout or an attention-seeking charlatan, it didn't matter--and with I'm Still Here, Phoenix paradoxically defies our expectations by playing right into them. If Phoenix doesn't want to be an actor anymore, that's too bad, because that's all we ever expected him to be. His only alternative is to be the Laughingstock of Tinseltown. Affleck intercuts videos that chronicle the evolution of the story as it unfolded in the tabloids, their mocking cruelty eventually coming to mirror Phoenix's own. (Notice, too, the moment when Ben Stiller shows up to discuss the Greenberg script with Phoenix, receiving a helping of abuse for his trouble. It's a fair indication that Stiller was in on this particular joke--so when he does Phoenix's shtick at the Academy Awards, it's the bemused reaction from his Hollywood contemporaries that hurts the most.) I'm Still Here offers a fairly stunning portrait of the artless sociopathy that dominates celebrity/Internet culture by throwing our own malice back at us. America loves a freakshow, and by gawking at Phoenix's "failures" with such interest and contempt, we've proven ourselves to be just as petty and small-minded as his fictitious counterpart. After a brief montage of video parodies, the final eulogy for Phoenix's career is delivered here by some David Spade-esque punk with a webcam--a scraggly dude hidden behind familiar sunglasses--who is no less of a sneering asshole than Phoenix himself.
Still, the direct relationship between Phoenix and his real/hypothetical audience cannot be pinned down so easily. I'm Still Here is about the chasms separating art from entertainment, performance from identity, success from doubt. Where is "here," exactly? Appropriately, the movie primarily conveys these ideas as a visceral experience, one that could only be imagined by a couple of actors with a few choice words for their chosen profession and the madness that surrounds it. Make no mistake: this film, this experiment, this persona, probably marks the end of a career. I doubt there's any way around that. And yet, true to his name, Phoenix has gone out in a blaze of glory, offering himself up as a nasty, ignorant mirror to the Hollywood grind. Originally published: September 22, 2010.