Ever since Joaquin Phoenix announced he was quitting acting in order to pursue a career in hip-hop, the entertainment world has been asking whether he was engaging in some sort of elaborate prank, an Andy Kaufman-esque performance-art stunt. I’m Still Here, the promised documentary about Phoenix’s “lost year” of trying to make it in hip-hop, just muddies the waters further. If this were real, the low-def look at Phoenix’s life of rambling self-aggrandizement, blown chances, rampant drug use, and out-of-control egotism would amount to a brutal exposé, presented with a rawness and intimacy that rivals Capturing The Friedmans. As a gag, though, it’s a grimier version of Borat, an interactive one in which the audience acts as the squirming dupe trying to judge how to respond to the questionable reality of the experience.
I’m Still Here begins with Phoenix pacing and muttering to his brother-in-law, Casey Affleck, about how he’s been trapped by characterization and caught up in a fraudulent career; shortly thereafter, he announces to the press that he’s done with acting. From there, he spends his time smoking pot, pacing around a series of unkempt apartments (and growing increasingly unkempt himself), and rambling or screaming at his friends and assistants. He produces terrible hip-hop and performs it in a stoned mumble, and chases after Sean “P. Diddy” Combs to produce his debut album. (Assuming Combs isn’t in on the joke, he comes across better than anyone else in the film, given his businesslike candor in the face of Phoenix’s erratic, needy behavior.) The context adds several layers to Phoenix’s disastrously awkward 2009 appearance on David Letterman—Phoenix seems less vacant, and more trying to get his bearings in the wake of relentless unexpected mockery, but the exchange also feels more like a planned comedy bit. Still, the aftermath, where he weeps in a thicket, sobbing that he’s going to be a joke forever, is excruciating.
Hoax or no—and within the film, Phoenix reacts with vast frustration to the idea that people are treating his life as a put-on—there’s an immersive, unnerving fascination to I’m Still Here, which has a once-respected actor acting like a petulant, spoiled child (albeit one who snorts coke with prostitutes) in private, then being forced to deal with the outside world, and staggering with confusion at the gulf between his self-image and his public image. Affleck’s grainy DV cameras linger on some shots so long, often following Phoenix from behind, that it feels like he’s trying to remake Gerry by way of The Blair Witch Project, but it also feels like he’s trying to bore through Phoenix and find the truth. Which may not be on display anywhere here. If this is a documentary, it’s a profoundly embarrassing one, in which Affleck has exposed Phoenix’s soul and found it shallow and damaged. If it’s a mockumentary, though, its greatest value is in pointing out the media’s gullibility, and reminding audiences that even in an age of limited privacy, they still have to question what they’re told and even what they witness themselves. It’s cruel either way, but riveting nonetheless.