Plot: A tell-all documentary following twice Academy Award nominated actor Joaquin Phoenix through his retirement from the movie business and his attempts to become a well respected rapper in Los Angeles.
My thoughts: In late 2008, the rumour mills were clogged with tales of the retirement of world renowned star and critics’ favourite Joaquin Phoenix. The news was made even more bizarre by his announcement that he would be “focusing on his music” and that his brother-in-law, the rather gifted Casey Affleck, would be documenting it all on camera. In the February of 2009, Phoenix appeared on ‘The Late Show With David Letterman’ to much attention from the press. His clearly vacant attitude and unshaven appearance lead to a media uproar, commanding the airwaves, all claiming that the once-pure and outstanding actor had completely lost the plot. The heavily publicized product of Phoenix’s madness entitled ‘I’m Still Here’ premiered at the Venice Film Festival in September of 2010 to much upheaval and confusion. A month later, Casey Affleck announced that it was indeed an elaborate hoax.
The ‘mockumentary’ itself is a very ambitious and unique piece of filmmaking, completely unexpected and mistakenly arty. During it’s early moments as we’re introduced to the new Joaquin, constantly referred to as “JP” by his friends and assistants, it’s clear that either Phoenix has completely lost the plot, or it is indeed a hoax. His bizarre lunacy is so un-diluted within the fabric of the “story” that it becomes very clear, very suddenly that Phoenix and Affleck are definitely having us on; making me truly wonder how such a film could confuse and irritate so many wondering viewers as to its truth. As time ticks by and JP has partied with hookers and pestered Sean ‘P-Diddy’ Combs to produce his album, Phoenix slowly begins to relax and shift into the character of JP much more believably, finally grasping his alternate-self firmly by the beard, an action which produces some rather humorous scenes.
There are however, plenty of unnecessary and disgusting parts thrown in for what looks like no good reason at all, peppering the drama with random clips of full-frontal nudity (mostly male) and even a scene in which JP’s “oldest friend” attempts to defecate on his face whilst asleep. It’s these avoidably silly and senseless sections which ruin the more touching and complacent elements and steer the burning-wreckage of Phoenix’s career straight towards the cliff’s edge, making the film more of a joke than a portrait.
When firmly placed in the second half of the feature, Phoenix moves best, silently tripping through the Letterman interview with carefully designed, but well-played awkwardness and bolting from the premiere of his “final” movie ‘Two Lovers’ only to commit to his feelings that he has generally made a huge mistake. It is this very moment, as Phoenix lies an emotional fetal wreck in a horde of overgrowing nettles and weeds that is the most truthful and touching. His flamboyant hysterics suddenly begin to register as genuine emotion, brushing aside the mockumentary for a single scene to suddenly reveal the broken life of a troubled star, hinting at a brief glimpse of what this picture could have been. The end is brought forth with perfect timing, bringing the almost tiresome charade to a well-thought-out conclusion, only to remove any questions of reality with a rather lazy set of credits, revealing the use of actors in key roles (such as Joaquin’s father being briefly portrayed by Casey Affleck’s own father).
Overall, ‘I’m Still Here‘ first existed as a clever idea, twisting itself into a demonically ballsy film which simply carries too much weight to be believable. It’s ambitiously fresh and certainly deserves your time, but falls far short of the rather distorted message Phoenix and Affleck originally wished to convey. The events shown will certainly be remembered, but the film will most likely not. However, Phoenix alone must be praised for his daringly thoughtful performance, his most complex role yet, carefully treading the thin line between self-parody and self-fulfillment almost flawlessly.