Reviewing I'm Still Here isn't easy. Neither is watching it. A few weeks ago, I was convinced it was all a set-up, because the situations within are far too contrived to be caught on camera, despite the on and off-screen protestations that, yes, you really are seeing Joaquin Phoenix having a meltdown. The Oscar-nominated actor had apparently ballooned in weight, grown a hobo-chic beard, ditched acting for rapping and had become a full-time, drugged-up asshole. OMG etc.
Subsequently, I formulated my opinions based on the fact that director Casey Affleck and his brother-in-law Joaquin were trying to con audiences into thinking we were witnessing the real live burnout of the supernova of celebrity. How much did I care? Very little. Then, a few days ago, Affleck admitted the Joaquin Phoenix of I'm Still Here was bogus: "It's the performance of his career," he told the NY Times. How much did I care then? Even less.
I have absolutely no problem with the film's concept - it's a valiant, ambitious move for any actor, much less one of Phoenix's stature, to basically disappear into a role for almost two years and to light the match the sends your credibility up in flames. This is perhaps as intimate and raw a portrait of a celebrity coming undone as you'll ever see, and now the beard's come off, Phoenix can start collecting plaudits for his commitment - you suspect that, after a while at least, he genuinely started believing his own charade a little. Andy Kaufman would have approved.
No, my problem is more with the motivation behind the movie. I'm Still Here appears to be asking us to sympathise with its star - a rich, privileged actor, who abuses his access to women, wealth and narcotics - while his dear brother-in-law captures his self-destruction on camera. There is no artistic merit driving the film, only ego. It is a movie whose sole conceit is that you care enough about Joaquin Phoenix to see his downfall as a tragedy, not a comedy.
All of which is, of course, impossible, because I'm Still Here asks us to invest in the fate of a moron. Changing his look (grizzly beard, track pants), his name ("It's JP... Joaquin" is his new calling card) and his profession (sub-Vanilla Ice white rapping), the Joaquin Phoenix of I'm Still Here is not a man you take seriously. Furthermore, set-ups are almost too perfect - the shambling appearances on stage at nightclubs, the nonsensical song lyrics, the spaced-out Letterman interview - and, as Phoenix turns on his loyal band of friends, the movie's narrative is all too convenient. Frankly, on occasion, it borders on Borat
-levels of believability.
But by far the biggest hurdle to enjoying I'm Still Here, at least as the cast and crew want you to, is director Casey Affleck's involvement. As Phoenix crashes and burns, Affleck is watching. As Phoenix snorts coke off a hooker's tit, Affleck is watching. As Phoenix baselessly accuses his best friend Anton of betrayal, calling him a "selfish, arrogant, worthless cunt", Affleck is watching. Before long, the fašade of realism slips beyond rescue, because anyone who actually gave a damn about Joaquin's well-being would have taken him aside and kicked his ass.
Affleck, however, just keeps on rolling, subscribing to the David Attenborough school of 'hands-off' documentary filmmaking. Sadly, that only really applies to gazelles being eaten by lions, not humans. Besides, there's ADR dubbing on some of Phoenix's cruder rants. I very much doubt he'd be asked to come back into a sound booth and re-record his more creative profanities with better diction.
Phoenix has more baggage than most to hoist upon an audience; the youngest of a family of entertainers, performing is in his blood, while his brother River succumbed to a drug addiction similar to the one Joaquin flirts with in the movie. It makes sense for him to make this movie, but the manner in which the audience is asked to be involved just makes you feel queasy. It's a movie powered by discomfort: Phoenix and Affleck aren't getting off if you're not disgusted on one or more levels. Needless to say, a scene in which one of JP's former friends literally shits on his face is unnecessary.
Scatalogical detours aside, accept the doc is mock and I'm Still Here makes for genuinely fascinating viewing: a grim, cartoonish snapshot of a man in freefall. But as Phoenix's 'career' splutters out on screen, so does the movie; as he returns home to see his 'father' (actually Affleck Snr) and reflect, you realise the film has absolutely nothing worthwhile to say.
What exactly was the point? Who are we supposed to be laughing at? It can't be an attack on celebrity culture, as it feeds on the coverage Phoenix's career nosedive receives, the hoax allegations folded back into the movie's narrative. Is it an attack on the all-pervasive media? But who wouldn't
agree that the car-crash that is JP 2.0 is more interesting than his clean-shaven alter-ego? Is it a joke at the expense of the audience? A meditation on life in the fast lane? A heartfelt attempt at performance art? All of these boxes and more remain unchecked.
More likely is that I'm Still Here is one gigantic ego massage; a post-modern, misguided in-joke cooked up by Joaquin Phoenix and Casey Affleck that only they'll truly understand. It's an act of unparalleled snobbery to expect an audience to believe - and be entertained by - a desperate man's foolish attempts to hoodwink the world. As a defeated Phoenix cleanses himself in the waters of Panama at the movie's climax, ultimately you're left asking the same question you were wondering when you went in: why should I care?