Remember those puzzling days of late 2008 and early 2009, when Joaquin Phoenix grew a bushy beard, announced he was quitting acting to launch his hip-hop career, and made a singularly catatonic appearance on the Letterman show?
At the time, it was said a documentary crew was following Phoenix around — which just increased the air of hoax surrounding the whole thing.
Does the documentary itself, “I’m Still Here,” clear everything up? Not really. In fact, the movie is superfluous — surely the point of the exercise was Phoenix’s performance-art piece that played out in the tabloids.
“I’m Still Here” is directed by Phoenix’s brother-in-law, Casey Affleck, an actor himself. It takes in the Phoenix entourage, which includes friends who are on his payroll as assistants.
Around scenes of coke-snorting partying that would not be out of place in a ’70s rockumentary, the film follows Phoenix’s attempts to get P. Diddy to produce a rap album for him. We hear a few tracks by the aspiring hip-hop artist and see some live-performance footage.
I assume it’s an intentional irony that while some of Phoenix’s mumbling dialogue is subtitled, his unintelligible raps are not. What we can discern of his songs is pretty awful, which, I assume, is the point.
Give Phoenix credit: He portrays a jerky, abusive blowhard with complete authority. Yes, it is credible that people like this exist in show business (and other businesses).
The big problem here (again, assuming it’s a put-on) is that Phoenix and Affleck are late to the ball. “Borat” did it better, and the whole portrait of self-serious stardom has been scoped out before.
Part of the movie’s target is the celebrity culture we live in, and certainly the clueless media is ripe for ridicule on that score. A few journalists are seen in the movie, going along for the ride — although presumably they were not in on the joke.
Nor was David Letterman, I suppose. Phoenix’s zonked appearance on the show is the movie’s peak, just as his supposed meltdown found its greatest notoriety in that stint. Letterman, at least, seizes the moment for a few peerless one-liners.
Immediately following the show, we see Phoenix in shock, agonizing that he’s self-destructed. The film then reaches for a meaningful final sequence, which in some ways is the most bewildering part of this whole project.
Whether they think they’re watching a real documentary or a guerrilla stunt, few viewers will be interested in sympathizing with Joaquin Phoenix at that point. They’ll just want to get away from him.