The documentary I'm Still Here follows Oscar-nominated actor Joaquin Phoenix as he announces his retirement from movie stardom and plans to focus on a hip-hop career. During the film, Entertainment Weekly runs a quote from an unnamed person inside Phoenix's circle who claims the whole thing is a hoax.
If — and I repeat, if — Phoenix's rap career and its documentary chronicle are indeed hoaxes, then Phoenix is a better actor than you ever imagined and willing to immolate his career and reputation in the name of making a point. Directed by Casey Affleck (who's married to Phoenix's sister, Summer), I'm Still Here qualifies as an ingenious public stunt worthy of the late Andy Kaufman, or a transfixing portrait of an untethered celebrity bedeviled by bad publicity and self-destructive instincts.
If Phoenix intended to put people off, mission accomplished. He announced his intention to quit acting in late 2008 and all but disappeared behind sunglasses and a beard of Zach Galifianakis proportions. In an early scene, he explains his ambivalence with the fame game while wearing a hoodie and keeping his back to the camera. It's easy to believe Phoenix's disenchantment with stardom, particularly given the death of his brother River Phoenix (seen only in a group shot of five young siblings performing a song).
Phoenix explains early on that he wants Affleck to record his journey from one career to another, although one wonders why the cameras keep rolling when Phoenix's transition turns into a downward spiral. The very existence of such a monumentally unflattering documentary could be Exhibit A in the case that I'm Still Here is a stunt perpetrated by Affleck and Phoenix.
Phoenix's mumbly delivery and brooding persona perfectly suit his implosive screen roles but appear unlikely traits for his new gig as would-be rapper "JP." His defiant and self-pitying lyrics seem no better or worse than other rap songs, but his vocals prove strained and hoarse. He seems to like writing and rapping, but I'm Still Here never shows him talking about why he connects to hip-hop. Instead, he repeatedly talks about how his art (mostly his acting) brings "positive energy" to the world, but the camera frequently presents him as petty, petulant and narcissistic.
One of the documentary's producers has filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against Affleck, and I'm Still Here hardly presents a lifestyle defined by gentlemanly restraint. Phoenix does drugs, puts on weight, surfs the Internet for sex and cavorts with prostitutes. One of his assistants, recovering alcoholic and former Spacehog musician Antony Langdon, bears the brunt of Phoenix's shaming tantrums when things go wrong. Near the end, Phoenix vomits copiously into a nightclub toilet, and the hand of an off-screen helper discretely reaches into the frame to pull his necktie away from the flow.
When Phoenix reluctantly attends the premiere and publicity events to promote Two Lovers, the paparazzi and gossipmongers come across as particularly hostile and repugnant. But no one forced Phoenix to go on "The Late Show with David Letterman" and act like an unresponsive, gum-chewing ass.
Phoenix's tentative rap career invites a telling contrast with the time Michael Jordan retired from the Chicago Bulls to pursue a dream of playing baseball. Such decisions can baffle fans and the press: Why deliberately trade excellence for mediocrity? At least Jordan spent a season playing minor league baseball before returning to the NBA. In I'm Still Here, we see Phoenix noodle around in his home studio, play a couple nightclub gigs, then pursue the chance of securing Sean "P. Diddy" Combs as his producer. Phoenix seems uninterested in working his way up through the hip-hop equivalent of the minor leagues, and endures humiliations worthy of a Christopher Guest film as he tries to win Combs' attention.
Combs and Ben Stiller both have awkward meetings with Phoenix in the documentary, which can raise further suspicions about the film's authenticity. Combs and Stiller have both played satirical versions of themselves in the past. In Phoenix's case, it's hard to know what's more unlikely: that he allowed Affleck to release such a true, unflattering portrait, or that he's pretending to look worse than he is. Either way, I'm Still Here compellingly and queasily captures Phoenix's determination to burn his Hollywood bridges behind him.