The Joaquin Phoenix-starring movie I’m Still Here represents a sticky wicket for My Year of Flops. It’s such an odd, unclassifiable project that it’s hard to even ascertain what the benchmarks for its success or failure might be. It was never going to gross $100 million or sweep the Oscars. It’s not that kind of a film. In fact, it’s hard to figure out what kind of a film it ultimately is. Yet I’m Still Here fits the parameters and vibe of My Year Of Flops in that it was largely, if not exclusively, processed as a profound and extremely public humiliation, a regrettable experiment that took up far too much of a talented actor’s time and mind. It certainly wasn’t received as an Andy Kaufman-like masterpiece of mind-bending post-modernism.
When I’m Still Here appeared, the cultural consensus seemed to be that Phoenix was a talented man behaving like a naughty boy and wasting everybody’s time with his post-modern pop-art foolishness and should go sit in a corner and think long and hard about what he did. Phoenix’s history lends the film a disturbing personal edge: What kind of lunatic makes a film depicting himself as a coke-snorting, booze-swilling pothead when his own brother famously died of a drug overdose outside the Viper Room at age 23? The whole misadventure was in perhaps questionable taste.
I’m Still Here hijacked Phoenix’s career and sent it hurtling in a bizarre, unprecedented new direction. Seemingly overnight, Phoenix went from being perceived as an unusually intense actor from a famously troubled family to a crazed, culture-mashing pop-art provocateur. He stopped being an actor and turned into a character. Beyond that, he became a pop-culture punchline and a popular Halloween costume. I’m Still Here will follow Phoenix for the rest of his life. It will be a long time before we can go to a new Joaquin Phoenix movie and not think of Rasputin-like beards, chewing gum, and the actor’s make-pretend descent into madness.
In some respects, celebrity has become its own art form in the 21st century, and I’m Still Here stands as one of the most subversive, insightful commentaries on that phenomenon. It explores a distinctly new form of narcissistic madness, an intense, web-fueled egotism bolstered by the demands of a 24/7 news cycle that insists everything celebrities do is news, whether that means going to get a gelato with a girlfriend or murdering a spouse. Before I’m Still Here came around, the Hollywood satire was moribund. It had lost whatever power and freshness it once possessed. We’d heard the stories too many times. We know that actresses exploit their sexuality to get ahead, agents are greedy, actors vain, directors eccentric, and writers tend to drink and aren’t treated in a terribly respectful fashion by the directors with whom they work. We needed new stories. More than that, we needed a new kind of movie. So Phoenix and co-conspirator/director/co-writer Casey Affleck decided to make a bold new cinematic experience that was part prank, part mockumentary, part real-time mindfuck, part quasi-confessional, and part eviscerating psychodrama.
Plenty of pop-culture rubberneckers pegged I’m Still Here as fake from the beginning, but when it was screened for critics, about half the reviews assumed it was an unblinking, disturbing portrait of a man’s emotional and spiritual breakdown. “Is it real?” became the dominant question. But I’m more interested in what Phoenix and Affleck are trying to convey about the poisonous narcissism of celebrity culture and the way it alienates you from your better angels.
Much of the film deals with Phoenix’s antagonistic, inherently one-sided relationship with his personal assistant. The personal assistant, like most, nurses artistic dreams of his own. His muse tells him that he was put on earth to sing and dance and play guitar and tell stories. The universe, however, is telling him that his destiny is to bring Joaquin Phoenix his fucking cappuccino and be quick about it, since Phoenix is the one signing the checks and paying the bills. That has to be heartbreaking even if your boss didn’t broadcast his contempt for you and your art at every possible interval. Fame is inherently alienating. It lifted Phoenix into a rarified realm where he was treated like a giant, overgrown baby. Like a baby, people assume that celebrities are fragile and important and should not have to do even the most basic human actions. They are far too important to fetch their own cup of water; someone else must attend to that task and do so with a smile and a positive attitude.
There’s something perverse about the idea of a personal assistant, someone seemingly placed on earth solely to serve someone society tells them is more important and valuable than them. Personal assistants are supposed to protect achingly fragile and incredibly busy employers. They also serve as barriers that keep their bosses from having to interact with the outside world and have conversations that might prove healthy and important. (Like, for instance, a conversation that might include the phrase “Joaquin, you need help.”). They keep their bosses in a safe bubble of total self-absorption. Within that bubble, which reflects onto itself for eternity, the Joaquin Phoenix character of I’m Still Here grows ugly and mean.
His handsome visage is hidden behind a Unabomber beard and dark sunglasses. A beer belly hangs over his gut. He wears sunglasses all the time. And he has decided that he is going to quit acting, something he is quite good at and for which he has been rewarded handsomely, to pursue a career as a rapper, something he knows nothing about. Actors are inherently inauthentic. They put on costumes and pretend to be other people using words not written by them. Here Phoenix sees hip-hop as the inverse of acting. In his pot-, coke-, and fame-addled mind, rappers are paragons of authenticity and free expression.
This is, of course, ludicrous. The main difference between rappers and actors is that rappers are way more into role-playing and posturing and trying out different personas. If anything, rappers are ragingly inauthentic. With delicious irony, Phoenix ultimately hooks up with hip-hop’s preeminent paragon of inauthenticity: Sean “Diddy” Combs. Combs has wicked comic timing: The scene where Phoenix plays him a song and Combs listens with a look that combines mild mortification with a pragmatic desire to make the best of a bad situation is a masterpiece of deadpan comic understatement.
Phoenix says his music makes people happy, but he’s not ultimately interested in anybody’s happiness but his own. For that matter, he’s not ultimately interested in anyone other than himself. He talks at people, not to them. He’s part of a narcissistic generation trained to think that everything they do is fascinating and constitutes entertainment. For Phoenix in I’m Still Here, everything is about him. So when he’s too fucked up to make it to President Obama’s inauguration, the narrative that plays out in his mind is not “First black president takes office” but rather “Joaquin Phoenix is betrayed by assistants who couldn’t hook him up with weed.”
In this scene, Phoenix raps badly with an aggressive, confrontational edge. When Phoenix raps, he’s not trying to entertain. He seems borderline enraged at the idea that people might even be entertained by his rapping. He raps because he thinks that everything that comes out of his mouth is important and needs to be heard and rapping is an unusually direct form of communication.
Phoenix enters the hip-hop world from a place of incredible, overbearing arrogance. He assumes that his fame and credibility will carry over from one arena to another. In a world where Diddy can go from “I think I want to be an actor” to starring on Broadway in a few years, that doesn’t seem like that impossible of a leap. So instead of starting at the bottom, Phoenix decides to start at the top by hiring the most sought-after producers in hip-hop to work with him on his silly vanity project. And Phoenix is arrogant enough to think he’s the one doing them a favor.
Phoenix the actor allows for no ironic distance between himself and the ugly burlesque of himself he plays here. He commits so deeply to the character’s repugnance and insufferable self-absorption that I’m almost a little disappointed to discover that Phoenix really isn’t a coke-snorting, whore-mongering monster. I kind of want that character to live on and have more misadventures.
The arrogance isn’t limited to the character. It takes a lot of nerve to imagine that audiences will pay money to see you behave as obnoxiously as humanly possible for nearly two hours. So there’s a sort of dual narcissism at play here as Phoenix the actor delights in seeing just how ugly and repulsive he can make himself, and the character sinks further and further into a mad world that only has space enough for himself and his massive ego. Maybe he can stage his record-release party there.
In the film, Phoenix becomes convinced that Hollywood is a dirty, rigged game he no longer wants to be a part of. There’s a great scene where Phoenix “takes a meeting” with Ben Stiller, ostensibly about the possibility of Phoenix playing a part in Greenberg. Instead, Phoenix subjects Stiller to an insane rant somehow involving the dog from There’s Something About Mary. In Phoenix’s new world, he’s the last honest man and everyone else around him is stuck playing someone else’s rigged game.
Deep into his downward spiral, Phoenix goes on The Late Show With David Letterman and the socially mandated charade that is the typical talk-show appearance breaks down and gives way to something new, disquieting, and unexpected. At the least, Phoenix deserves credit for not breaking character when seated about 5 feet away from one of the most feared, intimidating figures in pop culture. Phoenix and Letterman end up making a bizarre but inspired comedy team, with Phoenix playing the space cadet as he chews gum and fires off monosyllabic answers and Letterman genially inhabiting the role of the cantankerous uncle trying to drag Phoenix back into the world of the living and forcing him to behave like a human being instead of a celebrity. In I’m Still Here there’s a big difference between the two.
The real-life Phoenix clearly has something to say, but one of the film’s many sick jokes is that its protagonist has nothing to say and an obnoxious way of saying it. The title says it all and nothing: I’m here. I exist. In Phoenix’s mind, that’s enough to make it worth saying. Phoenix’s mumbled, borderline-incoherent lyrics are really just all about how incredibly fascinating he finds himself. Phoenix thinks he has goodness and positive energy to spread, but all he’s capable of is ugliness and narcissism. He imagines that because he is famous he has something worthwhile to share with the world, when he’s really just a guy who is good at pretending to be other people. That makes him a good actor, not a sage or a mystic.
I’m Still Here ends with a return to the beginning. The film opens with home-movie footage of Phoenix swimming in 1981 under the watchful, approving eye of his father. It closes with Phoenix stripping down and entering the water again. He wants to purge himself of his demons, to be reborn as something new and pure, but within the context of the film he is beyond redemption. He has burned all his bridges. He’s taken his narcissistic mania to the furthest possible point so that he, and the film he carries, can ultimately collapse in a state of world-weary exhaustion, secure in the knowledge that its strange, unquantifiable work has been done.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Secret Success