When writing about films, I hate to acknowledge any controversy or buzz surrounding them. I like to judge a film on its own merits and feel that’s the only fair way to critique them. But with I’m Still Here, it’s impossible to write about the film without acknowledging the question that has swirled around it since Joaquin Phoenix first announced his intention to retire from acting in order to pursue a rap career. That question is: Real or hoax? While it seemed obvious to me that the whole thing was a hoax, the confession by director Casey Affleck that the whole thing was just an act caused a surprising amount of controversy over the last week. This seemed ridiculous to me, but having seen the film, I can now understand at least some of the surprise.

The film (I refuse to call it either a documentary or mockumentary) follows Phoenix as he announces his retirement and pursues his music career. Along the way, he apparently suffers from a prolonged nervous breakdown. He grows out a beard, gains a ton of weight, does copious amounts of drugs, fights with his assistant Anton (Antony Langdon), solicits prostitutes, and performs hilariously bad rap songs. Along the way, he sweeps passing celebrities (Ben Stiller, Sean ‘P. Diddy’ Combs, Mos Def, David Letterman) into his perma-stoned wake, creating moments of squirm-inducing comedy that may or may not be completely staged.

That is where the film held most of my interest. It was intriguing to me as I attempted to understand who was in on the joke and who wasn’t. Letterman obviously was, and I believe the same can be said for Combs. But Stiller and Mos Def seem honestly flummoxed by Phoenix’s bizarre behavior. The look on Mos Def’s face is actually one of the funniest things I’ve seen in a movie this year.

A big part of the reason that these scenes are so effective and that I believe the reactions of those involved is that Phoenix is so committed to the persona he has created. He never once breaks the character of a pretentious, crybaby with low self-esteem. He flies into unexpected rages, wallows in self-pity, and fearlessly makes a giant fool out of himself on stage as he mumbles his way through rap performances that stop being funny and become painful to watch. It’s a staggering performance that rightfully kept a lot of people wondering if he had really just gone completely off the deep end.

But what does his performance and the uncomfortable scenes add up to? Affleck and Phoenix seem confused about what point they are trying to make. Are they lampooning self-important celebrities who have a relatively easy life, yet still feel the need to complain about how hard things are? Are they satirizing the overly saturated celebrity media culture that has spread exponentially with the popularity of gossip web sites? Is it a straight spoof about a man without any talent for rapping trying to jumpstart a rap career by stalking P Diddy? Is it an avant-garde performance piece meant to shock and disgust?

They attempt to make the film all of these things, but don’t commit to any of them. This becomes a problem as the film overstays its welcome, giving us repetitive scenes of Phoenix acting like a loon. The longer the film goes on, the more annoying it becomes. If there was a clear point to be made, it might have made the last thirty minutes of the film watchable. Unfortunately, it seems that Phoenix and Affleck are intent on making the audience as restless and uncomfortable as the real and fake characters in the film. Of course, the possibility exists that they were attempting the same sort of squirm-inducing anti-comedy that Andy Kaufman and Sacha Baron Cohen traffic in. If that’s the case, Phoenix and Affleck are not nearly as successful in their execution.

I’m Still Here is ultimately an unsuccessful experiment, but it does contain some fascinating sequences. Punctuated by Phoenix’s astonishing performance, it’s worth seeing; just don’t expect to understand why it exists.

Matt Wedge is a writer and film critic currently doing time in the suburbs of Connecticut.

Comments (1)

On July 31, 2012 at 5:54 PM, Chris wrote...

I think it’s bizarre that someone as smart as you would watch this film and think it’s a hoax or a mock when it clearly isn’t, when what you are watching is another human being recording his own personal dissolution. But then again, that seems, to me at least, to be the point of the movie. Everyone is just kind of standing around, watching JP commit what is essentially suicide, both literally and figuratively. That he managed to pull himself out of this death spiral deserves a movie in and of itself.

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