When Joaquin Phoenix announced he was retiring from acting to pursue a music career in 2008, people were right to be suspicious. Even if substance abuse or mental health issues had been involved, the actor’s transformation from clean-cut talent to aloof hobo-chic seemed too drastic and too sudden to stomach. It was sad to see a person self-destruct so publicly, but we watched him do it anyways, and that’s where the brilliance of Casey Affleck’s mockumentary I’m Still Here comes in. Joaquin Phoenix’s apparent struggles became fodder for jokes and tabloid speculation; people turned out for his “hip-hop” performances not to take in a rap show but to see a star crash and burn. I’m Still Here helps to expose society’s obsession with celebrity and that morbid curiosity we all have watching someone destroy themselves.
I am actually very glad that what I’m Still Here purports to be real is in fact a hoax. Phoenix is a gifted actor, a fact that is exemplified by his incredible performance in the film. Even though I knew the film was probably a staged when I saw it, Phoenix’s performance depressed me. It made me pity this strange, depraved, drug-addled version Joaquin Phoenix. If it were real, I wondered why aren’t the people around him intervening? Why is Casey Affleck enabling his brother-in-law in this way by making a film about him? Nobody would let a close friend go off the deep end like this, and to film them doing so would be the height of exploitation.
The film “documents” Phoenix’s public fall from grace, his constant squabbles with his assistants, agents and public relations people, and his mumbling musical endeavours. His character is determined to succeed in the rap game, self-producing an album worth of lo-fi hip-hop tunes inspired by his life as an actor and celebrity. Phoenix surrounds himself with yes-men and women, who do everything in their power (they are being paid by the actor after all) to facilitate his new passion. It is not until Phoenix encounters someone who is not on his payroll, producer Sean “P. Diddy/Puff Daddy” Combs, that he finally encounters resistance to his plan. No is not a word that Phoenix is used to hearing; Combs’ rejection of his work is a huge blow to his ego and his hopes of becoming a hip hop artist. After Phoenix’s now legendary appearance on David Letterman and a disasterous rap performance at a Miami club, the performer throws in the towel. The film ends with Phoenix seeking solace in Panama, paying a visit to his father and enigmatically walking upstream in a small river.
If you go into I’m Still Here aware of its intentions and can get past some of the absurd situations Phoenix places himself in, you will likely enjoy the film. You’ll likely laugh a lot too; the film features copious amounts of somewhat pointless full-frontal male nudity and cameos from a number of noted actors and personalities, including Ben Stiller, Edward James “EJO” Olmos and of course P. Diddy. The film thoroughly lays the the relationship between the public, the media and Hollywood bare; calling it a mockumentary is extremely apt, as there is plenty of well-deserved mocking to be done. Affleck took a huge risk making this film and Phoenix was equally bold in becoming this character. They are to be commended for doing something different and interesting exploiting the very things that make so much in this world homogenous and boring to do so.