I’m Still Here proves Joaquin Phoenix is either the greatest living actor or a colossal, real-life asshole. The debate is centered on the film’s still-murky concept: Did brother-in-law/director Casey Affleck make a documentary about his wife’s coked-out brother or did he make a mockumentary starring Joaquin Phoenix as “Joaquin Phoenix,” a stand-in for every self-important, whiny, bloated, neurotic mess of a Hollywood actor?
Affleck follows Phoenix with a shaky, handheld camera during the actor’s “lost year” of 2008 after Phoenix announced his retirement from film in order to pursue a hip-hop career. This was the year of Phoenix’s bird’s nest beard, bizarre Letterman appearance, and attack on a crowd member during his brief onstage rap career, all of which are covered in the film.
An early scene of Phoenix’s seemingly endless string of press junkets promoting Walk the Line, wherein interviewers repeat the exact same questions and Phoenix delivers the exact same answers, almost makes it easy to understand how the business might inspire early exits. In a subsequent scene, a pudgy, chain-smoking Phoenix mumbles, “I don’t want to play the character of Joaquin anymore,” and laments that film acting, which he likens to dressing up dolls, doesn’t really allow for the actors’ creative expression.
What little sympathy the audience has witnessing Phoenix’s professional dissatisfaction quickly evaporates once Affleck starts chronicling the former actor’s erratic personal life, which revolves around three “assistants” that Phoenix constantly harasses and belittles. Phoenix charges these paid friends to handle his business, score him drugs, and arrange for a meeting with Bad Boy Entertainment owner Sean “Diddy” Combs to see if he’ll produce Phoenix’s album full of rap gems like “Compli-fucking-cation.” Phoenix and co. chase the sit-down for most of the film, flying from L.A. to New York to Miami like plane tickets and hotel reservations grow on trees, which they might if the purchaser is a famous actor. In between, Phoenix appears constantly on the verge of a panic attack, fed by obsessively watching his rap-career announcement deteriorate into a gossip column joke. When he’s not mired in navel-gazing, he’s throwing debauched parties with hookers and cocaine and getting shit on (literally) by an irate assistant.
At the end of the film, the question still remains, was this a performance art hoax or a narcissist’s video journal? Things like a cast list (in a documentary, really?) and crediting a Hawaii shooting location when the only tropical locale was supposedly Panama, give evidence for the first option. Female crewmembers’ sexual harassment allegations against Affleck and an imdb.com page showing Phoenix indeed has no film credits since 2008’s Two Lovers lends credence to the second.
Real or fake, Phoenix playing Phoenix highlights the sad, enabling side of Hollywood where the only way to escape is to make another movie.