Madness or high-concept performance art? "I'm Still Here," the faux documentary about actor Joaquin Phoenix, is likely to baffle and divide its audience. When Phoenix decided to quit acting, and seemingly hygiene, to pursue his passion of becoming a rap star--his friend and brother-in-law Casey Affleck was there to follow and film the inevitable fall from grace. There was rampant speculation from the get-go about the legitimacy of the endeavor (especially as it was all being filmed), but the longer the debacle played out--the less it seemed to matter. Fake or real, the damage was being done. Now, almost two years later, to have the entire experience and film declared a ruse seems the ultimate act of futility. Who, exactly, is the joke on? And to what purpose?
"I'm Still Here" covers all the trappings of a celebrity life in descent. Drug use, prostitutes, public intoxication, brawling and a "star" desperate to be taken seriously despite his best efforts to act a fool--we've seen the act before in countless narrative films and fictionalized biographies. We get a repeat of the infamous Letterman interview, the concert performance that became a YouTube sensation, and the incident where Phoenix attacked a concert goer. We also get to see moments of celebrity intervention--Edward James Olmos tries the spiritual approach while Ben Stiller tries to get Phoenix back to work. Much of the film is about a scramble to get into the music industry. Phoenix aggressively pursues P. Diddy, the film's most inspired performance, who is mainly just concerned about getting paid. Now that's real! And it all concludes on a rather ridiculous "arty" note which has got to be satirical.
Affleck has maintained that this is his brother-in-law's best performance. The problem is--I don't know if I believe him, I don't know that I care, and I don't know if it matters? At some point, you have to ask yourself "what's the point?" As near as I can figure, the only analysis has "I'm Still Here" as a discussion on the nature of reality and/or the nature of celebrity. On either account, is it relevant and necessary? When it was declared "I'm Still Here" was a hoax, that really doesn't change much of the on-screen content. Phoenix deconstructed his life on camera and those bad acts were put in the film. Even if some of the private incidents were staged (who knows? who cares?), the public behavior earned Phoenix notoriety as a drug addled buffoon. So whether he was living the life depicted or "acting" like he was living the life depicted, there isn't much real difference. What's that say about reality? Not so sure. And with celebrity meltdowns almost a monthly occurrence, does a "fake" one merit much interest? Not so sure.
The alternate option, and the one I tend to gravitate towards, is that it's all really quite meaningless in the long run. I think Affleck's "truthful" revelation while the film was in limited release was meant to fuel interest and debate. Duh? Fine, then, let's set a different set of standards. As a fictional experiment, I still think the film and its topic play out too often in real life to be particularly revelatory here. In terms of entertainment, I'd make the same argument. At best, I'd say that "I'm Still Here" is a fascinating excursion in self-indulgence both by Phoenix and Affleck. Whether that's enough will depend on your interest in the pair. I was mildly interested when all is said and done. KGHarris, 10/10.