Joaquin Phoenix seems to have a love/hate relationship with fame – and that’s putting it mildly. An actor since the age of eight, he was further thrust into the limelight (in the most unfortunate of ways) after a decade in the industry. At the age of 19, his frantic call to 911 requesting assistance for his recently overdosed brother River was repeated ad nauseum on the airwaves. Surely this would be enough to instill a deep-seated resentment of the media machine, and the consumers less interested in art and more interested in the flaming wreckage of famous lives.
Still, it was surprising when Phoenix announced in 2008 that he would be retiring from the demanding world of acting to begin a new career as a rapper. Over the past two years, we’ve witnessed his seemingly drug-fuelled descent through the eyes of the E!’s and the Perez Hilton’s of the world, wondering whether it’s real or in fact a giant hoax. Now, with the Casey Affleck-directed “documentary” I’m Still Here, we get to see the events from Phoenix’s POV. And real or fake, he gives us exactly what we’ve always wanted – first class seats to career suicide.
Saying that, I have no doubt in my mind that the film is a fake (think Exit Through The Gift Shop or F For Fake). There’s enough evidence in the picture to reach that conclusion; besides, if it is real, Affleck is a real jerk for allowing his real-life brother-in-law to embarrass himself on camera to such a degree. Maybe “fake” is the wrong word. Phoenix isn’t faking a thing. This is a performance – a more ferocious and committed one you are unlikely to find. He’s doing what Andy Kaufman did in the late 70s and early 80s: creating a public persona so discomforting, the audience is drawn specifically to him because of their distaste. We want to see this film because we want to see Crazy Joaquin do crazy things. Hey, maybe he’ll cry!
I’m reminded of that scene in Gladiator (a film that actually starred Joaquin, but that’s by the by), in which Russell Crowe’s Maximus screams at his bloodthirsty audience “Are you not entertained?” That, in a nut shell, is I’m Still Here. We’d be lying to ourselves if we said we weren’t fascinated by Phoenix’s bizarre antics over the past few years – the video-phone recordings of his terrible rapping; that cringe-worthy appearance on David Letterman; his ratty, creepy beard. We’ve lumped him into the same group of fallen stars that already includes Lindsay Lohan and Mel Gibson (who I’m praying is also involved in some bizarre performance art project). He’s endured a public blood-letting, and this film is his declaration to the audience: “What more could you possibly want? What more can I give? How much more can you take?” He does this, not with a lecture, but with the most flamingly destructive self-depiction imaginable. This is no pious, Christ-like figure. This dude is a mess.
“Joaquin Phoenix” (the character, or rather, the real Phoenix’s id) is cruel, detached, and painfully lacking in self-awareness. As his career(s) disintegrate in front of our very eyes, he retreats further, surrendering himself to public opinion – and buying it. Late in the film, we see him sitting in darkness, illuminated only by the light of the computer screen, watching the endless parody videos of himself online. He’s crestfallen. He keeps telling Affleck of his pure intentions, and along the way his dreams are met with nothing but ridicule. I, like many, contributed to his crucifixion. How I wished that this film had treated its audience (those of us who tied Phoenix to the tree in the first place) with disdain. This time I felt as if I had deserved a cinematic dressing down, a’la Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, just so I could let go of my guilt. (It doesn’t help that the movie, in its Borat-esque way, is really rather funny, deriving uncomfortable laughs from Phoenix’s downfall). But Phoenix and Affleck aren’t merely concerned with teaching everyone a lesson – that would be cheap. They offer us an opportunity to step through the looking glass and see the human being that sits behind the famous personality, and that’s a more important insight than any simple “gotcha” experiment could offer.
I expected I’m Still Here to be a smug satire on the nature of celebrity; instead I found it to be a sensitive, heartbreaking character piece. Affleck’s directorial debut may be a messy construction (Michael Phillips at the Chicago Tribune calls it “a two-hour ‘bonus extras’ edition” of Phoenix’s Letterman appearance), but the first-timer allows Phoenix enough breathing room to give birth to his demented alternate persona. Whether it’s real or fake (and you already know what I believe), it seems the demons and dirty laundry being aired here are genuine. Joaquin Phoenix may not be really crazy, but he seems to be really sad.