I'm Still Here
It’s a hoax. That’s what everyone was saying before they saw it. The fake meltdown, the strange David Letterman appearance, the poorly rehearsed and bizarre sounding hip-hop performances: all part of an elaborate anti-comedy ruse. Why wouldn’t it be? Joaquin Phoenix is one of the greatest actors of our generation. He has money and fame, and can do anything he wants. When we see James Franco on a soap opera or playing coy in an interview, we don’t think he’s taking himself seriously. We know he’s just having fun. He has nothing to lose, and it’s a fun way to kill time between passion projects. We assumed the same of Phoenix, but he’s a guy who took it a step further, maybe adored Andy Kaufman a bit too much and played a prank on all of us. Or so we assumed. By the end of the screening, it wasn't so clear.
I’m Still Here, directed by Phoenix’s brother-in-law Casey Affleck, is a documented account of “J.P.” trying to redefine himself as a rapper. “I want to make the hip-hop 'Bohemian Rhapsody,'” he tells Mos Def when they bump into each other at an airport. Affleck and Phoenix then go on a round-the-country trip, with Affleck documenting Phoenix’s fall from prominence, his ambitions and desires to redefine himself, his exploits, and most of all, his breakdown.
The film is jam-packed with sex and drugs, but the rock and roll is replaced by narcissism, failed opportunities, embarrassment and degradation. It’s not just Joaquin Phoenix documenting his transition, but also Joaquin Phoenix trying to show that he is in fact documenting his transition. A large aspect of the film is about being taken seriously, and the idea of the film being a hoax plays such a prominent part in the film that it makes the film seem like the biggest meta-hoax of all time.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m Still Here is a very well made hoax. But it is a hoax. There are too many coincidences, too many seemingly scripted absurd moments and too many exaggerated conflicts leading to over-the-top resolutions (yes, the defecation rumor is true and yes, it’s disturbingly hilarious). But that’s not to say everyone in the film is in on the joke. Some conversations play out like a Sacha Baron Cohen gag. In one scene J.P. sits down with Ben Stiller to discuss a possible acting role, and leaves Stiller to wonder what kind of a lunatic he’s dealing with. On the flipside he also plays the Andy Kaufman-esque hurt clown in scenes where Sean “Diddy” Combs puts him in his place.
It’s fascinating to watch, hoax or not. And it’s a great premise, but in some shots you can imagine Affleck and Phoenix in the editing booth getting a twisted thrill out of mocking the audience. There are shots of Phoenix walking solemnly for no reason, extended moments where he silently makes his own discoveries that don’t translate on screen at all and scenes that walk the line (pardon the pun) between garnering sympathy for our anti-comedy anti-hero, and accumulating more loathing for him. As a huge fan of Andy Kaufman, I am openly hoping the film is in fact a hoax. Putting that aside, it does look very real. The audience wasn’t amused by the spectacle; they saw it as document of a young, two-time Academy Award nominee’s out of control antics followed by his rapid downward spiral. More than that, they saw an actor they admire act like a petulant, spoiled sociopath.
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Sean ‘P. Diddy’ Combs, Antony Langdon, Casey Affleck
Directed by: Casey Affleck
Runtime: 108 minutes
Distributed by: Magnolia Pictures