I'm Still Here

Celebrity meltdowns happen with enough regularity to sustain an entire subsection of entertainment journalism (well, “journalism”), but there's never been a celebrity meltdown (well, “meltdown”) quite like the one served up by Joaquin Phoenix. Without warning, the Oscar-winning actor announced that he was quitting acting and would be pursuing a career as a hip-hop artist. This bizarre turn of events was accompanied by even more bizarre public behavior, as a seemingly drug-addled Phoenix stumbled into various nightclubs and performed loud, sweaty, clumsy renditions of his ungainly rap songs. The most prominent low point was his appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman, where his bedraggled look and bewildered demeanor made him seem almost zombie-like (Letterman's most memorably cutting remark: “Sorry you couldn't be here tonight”).

Finally, after roughly two years of this insanity, the truth was revealed: Phoenix's behavior had all been an act for a mockumentary being directed by Casey Affleck. Unfortunately for the film, that information was made public in advance of the film's release, thus killing the “curiosity factor” that might have granted the movie a measure of financial success. The film tanked at the box office, received mixed reviews and inspired further hostility towards Phoenix: “Wait, so you were acting like a self-absorbed tool as part of some pretentious art experiment? That just makes it worse! Screw you, Joaquin!”

I'm Still Here certainly isn't great art – it's as sloppy, unfocused and chaotically noisy as its main character – but it's nonetheless a strangely sad, intriguing document. It doesn't really work as the story of a man suffering from a meltdown (since it's impossible to escape the knowledge that most of what we're seeing is part of an elaborate put-on), but it's fascinating as a portrait of a talented, successful actor more or less throwing a chunk of his career away in the service of a misguided experiment. Phoenix's sheer commitment to the bit – his willingness to wreck his reputation, his willingness to go to uncomfortable extremes on-camera and the consistently hazy-but-agitated raw despair of his performance – makes him feel like the gold medalist in a sport no one else wants to compete in.

The film begins with Phoenix's decision to quit the acting business, which is announced in thoroughly unspectacular fashion: he grabs the first desperate entertainment reporter he can find, tosses out the big news with a shrug and then moves on to start work on his music career. At first, the world laughs it off... after all, we live in a world where a showbiz “retirement” often means, “I'm gonna take a year off.” Ben Stiller visits Phoenix and makes an attempt to convince him to accept a role in Noah Baumbach's Greenberg (the part that eventually went to Rhys Ifans), and Phoenix's rude, dismissive behavior makes it clear that he has no interest in doing anything in Hollywood. He's serious about this whole hip-hop thing, and he's prepared to pursue it wholeheartedly.

Unfortunately, Phoenix isn't much of a rapper, fumbling his way through awkward, ungainly lyrics about fame and stress and complications (“compli-f---ing-cations-f---ing-cations-complications!” he bellows in one particularly messy tune). He has a meeting with Sean “P. Diddy” Combs, who patiently but efficiently deflates Phoenix's claims of artistic grandeur by reminding him of the practical and financial challenges of making a great album. “You have to come into this with respect,” Combs sternly notes. Later, Combs actually listens to to a handful of Phoenix's demos, and offers a couple of heavily-qualified compliments. “So when do we get started?” Phoenix eagerly inquires. A look of alarm crosses Combs' face: “Oh, no, you're not ready to record with me. You're not there yet.”

Phoenix's lame rapping and clueless behavior are all part of his performance, but the line between acting and reality gets awfully blurry. Sure, he may be pretending to fall apart during the press tour for Two Lovers (one of the best films of the actor's career), but that decision – made without the approval of any of the other people who worked on that film – may very well have played a role in that film's box office failure. The stuff he does has real consequences, which gives the film a level of tension it may not have been going for. At times, Phoenix's willingness to go too far rivals that of the Jackass crew: note the scene in which he snorts cocaine off of a prostitute's breast, or the scene in which one of Phoenix's assistants defecates on the actor's face (it's every bit as gross as it sounds). It may not have been intended as such, but the film is at its strongest when it resembles a Tim & Eric-style cringe comedy.

Unfortunately, that doesn't really seem to be what Affleck was going for. The long, silent tracking shot that concludes the film suggests that I'm Still Here was aiming for a level of profundity it never comes close to reaching. The movie doesn't have much of value to say about the diabolical nature of fame or the challenges of celebrity, and the ideas it does have it expresses with crude, shapeless inelegance. Thinking about the film is ultimately a little more interesting than actually watching the film, as the loud, abrasive, repetitive nature of the experience starts to wear on you after a while. Still, there's something curiously haunting here: one of the finest actors of his generation spent a sizable chunk of his life doing this? The very thought is hilarious and horrifying in equal measure.

I'm Still Here

Rating: ★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 108 minutes
Release Year: 2010