Two years ago, award winning actor Joaquin Phoenix announced his retirement from the film industry. While no specific reason was given, he stated that he wanted to focus on creating a rap album, which would be produced by Sean “Diddy” Combs. It shocked many. The cinema world was losing a major talent. But in early 2009, videos of Phoenix rapping appeared online and his performances were being filmed by none other than his brother-in-law, Casey Affleck. Speculation arose. Soon after his awkward appearance on “The Late Show with David Letterman,” the public really began to wonder whether or not his antics were real, especially after it was announced that a film of his exploits was being made.
I’m Still Here is the chronicle of those exploits, from his sudden realization that he was unhappy acting—even as himself, the media friendly Joaquin Phoenix—to his tragic (or not) downfall. Rumor has it that when searching for a distributor for the movie, potential buyers were unsure whether or not it was a true documentary or a fictional mockumentary. After having seen it, I share in their uncertainty.
If it is fake, it’s one of the most effective ruses ever put to film. Phoenix is believable as the newly retired actor going through a Britney Spears like collapse and given his proven talent, it’s difficult to judge the film’s authenticity. If forced to choose, I’d bet my chips on it being fake, as most movies of this type are, but it really doesn’t matter. The extent of its fiction does little to save what is one of the most self-indulgent movies I’ve seen in a long time.
My colleague, friend and co-host Kevin McCarthy made an interesting comment after the conclusion of I’m Still Here. He said it was the only movie he could recall that you could review in two ways: from the perspective of it being real and the perspective of it being phony. It’s a situation of, “If it’s real, then…” and “If it’s fake, then…” And he’s right, but no matter how you cut it, it's hedonistic. Throughout its runtime, Phoenix acts like a jerk no matter who accompanies him. An interviewer, close friends and even random folks in his general vicinity receive the brunt of his vile verbal ranting. He is so full of himself that he emotionally shuns even those who have stuck by him and love him. So if I’m Still Here is real, Phoenix himself is self-indulgent. If it’s fake, the movie as a whole is.
For two years now, Phoenix has hid behind a façade, plastering his face all over entertainment media with wild speculation about his supposed career change. His relationships have been damaged and his name tarnished. His role here, if the movie is indeed fake (and for the sake of this argument, it is), is of a man who merely wants to get away from the superficiality of Hollywood and do what he wants. He is essentially playing a fake version of himself who is tired of playing a fake version of himself. The very idea spins heads, but it also comes off as a snarky display of exhibitionism done just for the sake of doing so. It’s an artsy, more acceptable way for the whiny kid inside of him to scream, “Look what I can do!”
Frankly, if you took away all of my criticisms so far and looked at I’m Still Here on the basis of whether or not it works as a movie, it merely evokes a feeling of an overextended YouTube clip, which is fitting seeing as how a good chunk of its content is available on that popular video site. In fact, the best parts of the movie, like the hilarious David Letterman segment and the embarrassing hip hop performance that culminates in his falling off the stage, have been online since this whole escapade began. The unseen content involves Phoenix doing things normal people would avoid, like snorting coke, ordering up some hookers, receiving oral sex from aforementioned hookers and so on.
Again, whether or not he is actually partaking in these activities is up in the air, though I sense it wise to retain some skepticism. Besides, if Joaquin Phoenix really wanted to retire from acting, why make a documentary? Surely he must know, as any actor should, that documentaries never fully capture real life. It’s only natural to act out, even to the slightest degree, when a camera is shoved in your face, a fact that contradicts Phoenix’s supposed desire to retire. So perhaps he shouldn’t leave the film industry just yet. He apparently still has a lot to learn.
I’m Still Here receives 1.5/5