The worst thing about I’m Still Here (Magnolia Pictures) is the fact that it exists. I’m fairly indifferent to the debate about the precise degree to which this “documentary” is a hoax. (The end titles include a writing credit—a clue that we’re not exactly in cinema vérité territory.) Yes, it seems likely—incontrovertible even—that the director, Casey Affleck, and his brother-in-law, Joaquin Phoenix (who also produced), cooked up this idea together and massaged real events in such a way as to provide subject matter for their movie. But the central reason they did so—because Phoenix was undergoing a self-destructive, drug-enabled mental breakdown that made for juicy mockumentary fodder—makes the whole stunt pretty difficult to stomach.
After finishing his last film, Two Lovers (in which, incidentally, he gave a phenomenal performance), Phoenix offhandedly announced he was giving up acting and embarking on a hip-hop career. He gained weight, adopted a Hasidic-style beard and homeless-style hair, and began mumbling bizarrely through Two Lovers promotional appearances, culminating in a humiliating Letterman interview in early 2009. All the while, Phoenix was shadowed by Affleck, who claimed to be shooting a documentary about his brother-in-law’s career change. The whole thing had the feel of a frat-house stunt being coolly orchestrated from behind the scenes. But now that the product of Affleck’s labors is here, it feels less like an Andy Kaufman-esque happening and more like a GG Allin-style flameout. After viewing this film I have no doubt that Phoenix is, whatever else he may be, a lost, fucked-up, and suffering man, and that whatever project he thought he was collaborating on was considerably more grandiose than this sordid little document.
If you see one scene of I’m Still Here you have, almost literally, seen them all. Again and again, we witness Phoenix in dimly lit, cluttered rooms, raving abusively to his hangers-on (two beleaguered young men identified as his “friends and assistants”) about their inability to understand or help with his artistic transition from actor to rapper. He smokes pot, snorts coke, hires hookers, and reads his own press online, all the while deluding himself that Sean “Puffy” Combs—whom he flies around the country pursuing—will take him seriously enough to produce his ludicrously amateur-sounding raps. Phoenix comes across as so unrelievedly awful—boorish, arrogant, paranoid, utterly devoid of charisma—that the character must be, at least in part, a put-on. The film can’t decide whether this pitiable Hollywood grotesque should be its villain, its tragic hero, or the butt of an extended reality-TV joke.
Unless I’ve been thoroughly hoodwinked and Phoenix was actually fully competent and yukking it up with his mates off-camera, everyone who participated in making or distributing this film is deserving of blame. If Phoenix is in fact a mentally ill drug addict, the fact of his collaboration in no way saves I’m Still Here from being a work of rank exploitation. The movie prevaricates about the conditions of its own creation: Where was Phoenix’s family during all this, especially his sister, Summer? (If my husband exposed my struggling brother the way Affleck exposes Phoenix here, I would divorce him.) How did Affleck explain the crew’s presence to the participants? Why do celebrities (Puffy, Ben Stiller, Edward James Olmos) show up for cameos that seem just a little too pat to be real? (To his credit, Puffy does provide the movie’s comic high point, fixing the camera with a deadpan stare as he listens to Phoenix’s mortifying demo reel.)
If you’re still considering seeing this documentary, out of some misplaced belief that it will teach you something about celebrity or self-reinvention or performance art, be warned that there’s a running theme of gross-out scenes involving bodily emissions. In a pointlessly degrading moment, we watch at length as Phoenix vomits into a toilet after a gig gone horribly wrong, an aide holding his mic cord out of the way. In another, one of Phoenix’s put-upon flacks exacts his revenge with a repulsive scatological stunt.
Finally, after 107 stifling minutes in Phoenix’s company, we get a sentimental coda in which he travels to Panama to visit his father (played, confusingly, by Casey Affleck’s real-life father). The last shot of the film shows Phoenix wading in a stream he used to swim in as a child. As violin music plays, he slowly submerges himself in the water, disappearing from sight. What gives Affleck the right to suddenly switch gears from crude voyeurism to forced pathos? Joaquin Phoenix may be the one going under, but it was Casey Affleck whose pockets I felt like stuffing with rocks.