Review: ‘I’m Still Here’

If what’s happening in the film is honest and real, it’s more spectacle than introspection. If it’s all fake, only the filmmakers are laughing.

After a string of great performances in films like Gladiator, Signs, and Walk the Line, actor Joaquin Phoenix (as chronicled by friend and fellow actor Casey Affleck) becomes disillusioned with his Hollywood lifestyle and career. Determined to find another means to express himself, he announces his retirement from acting to pursue a career in rap. Allowing his personal grooming to lapse and making surprise “rap concert” appearances to drunken laughter, viewers watching may start to wonder how all of it was captured for a documentary or if any of it is real at all.

Titled in the mantra of all “former-actors” (as the media likes to call them when reporting a DUI or other arrest), I’m Still Here chronicles the alleged breakdown of Joaquin Phoenix from A-list actor to (inexplicably) a wannabe rapper and beyond. As Mr. Phoenix behavior grows more eccentric, the media starts circling him like rabid vultures on mainstream outlets and online venues alike. Even close friends are shown dumping on him (both figuratively and literally), but something always feels a bit off, as if this were a performance piece or a staged re-enactment.

The entire production sounds inspired by antics such as the late Andy Kaufman’s infamous character Tony Clifton, a caustic lounge singer that routinely blew up into angry rants. The secret was that the “Tony” appearance was so layered that with the right clothes, wigs and beard, anyone could be Tony Clifton (and periodically was when Andy would show up in the audience who came to see his “act.”) This is never more obvious than during a 2009 awards show (highlighted in the film) where Ben Stiller shows up looking like Phoenix and throwing Natalie Portman under the bus with mock unprofessionalism.

Appearances by Jack Nicholson, Billy Crystal, Danny Glover, Bruce Willis, Robin Wright, and Danny DeVito (not to mention Sean “Puffy” “P. Diddy” Combs as Mr. Phoenix’s unmentionable music producer) seem to be included strictly for creditability (celebrities like these certainly wouldn’t allow their likenesses to be filmed unless everything was legit, right?) Sadly, the cat was let out of the bag recently as both Phoenix and Affleck admitted to staging the work, but at the same time Phoenix also reportedly claims to be playing himself with the exception that he’s reacting to a made-up situation.

While there may be some merit to this as an exercise or performance piece, it never shakes the feeling of being a put on, as though Phoenix and his friends are all laughing at us scratching our heads and taking it all too seriously. Kudos to them if that’s true, but if the idea had been revealed at the beginning to let the audience in on the bit (remember Being John Malkovich?), the filmmakers might have been enabled to go even further, making the paparazzi doubt anything a celebrity ever did on camera again. As it is, it’s only half of a joke or half a documentary, so the final joke is on the finished production itself.

(a one and a half skull recommendation out of four)

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