Joaquin Phoenix is mentally unhinged. You don’t need to see I’m Still Here, a documentary about the recent events in his life, to know that. Filmed by brother-in-law and actor Casey Affleck, this film takes a messy dive into Phoenix’s life after his retirement from acting two years ago. Omnipresent throughout the film is a central question: “Is this a hoax?” Whether the answer is yes or no, I felt that nothing can redeem this laughable movie – and possibly Phoenix’s career.
The movie begins with Phoenix confessing his disillusionment with Hollywood and renouncing his acting career. His next step? To become a hip hop star under the tutelage of a very reluctant P. Diddy. In an attempt to open up his private life to the public, Phoenix decides to create a documentary detailing his career change and his tumultuous, troubled life.
Phoenix was, as he claimed in one of his rap songs, “discovered young.” One of five kids in the traveling Phoenix clan, he went from being a child actor in flicks like Parenthood to a two-time Oscar nominee to an emergent, chubby rapper named JP with a penchant for hookers and wearing the beard of a pedophile.
It’s hard to decide what’s more shocking: Phoenix’s rapid slide downhill, his apparent disregard for respect, good PR and personal hygiene, or the fact that we didn’t know he was so strange all along. How did this relatively normal, if moody, actor suddenly become the schizophrenic has-been he seems to be in this movie?
When Phoenix dumps a pile of cocaine onto a table shortly into the film, it’s almost a relief: Finally there is an explanation to this madness. And mad it is. The movie is as uncentered as Phoenix’s life, cutting from scene to choppy scene in a theater of the absurd. Most of the action consists of Phoenix pacing around with hair that is starting to dread up, screaming at people or refining his brand of disturbing mumblecore hip-hop. My favorite line occurs on a snow-laden hill, where he rolls around on the ground screaming at his assistant to “be the f—ing snow angel!”
It would be pointless to look for meaning in this film, where metaphors about honeybees and drops of water fall flat and where people like P. Diddy emerge as voices of reason. The title is a clear wink to the Bob Dylan biopic “I’m Not There,” yet as the movie goes on, it becomes an awkward cry for attention. One of the final scenes in the movie portrays Phoenix performing his rap song also titled “I’m Still Here,” chanting the words again and again like an unpopular teen trying to garner attention at a party. I couldn’t help but wonder whether this movie was a publicity stunt that fell flat, perhaps as a defensive reaction to the public audience that reacted with apathy when Phoenix left the business.
After releasing the movie, Affleck and Phoenix revealed that the whole thing was, in fact, a hoax. This adds I’m Still Here to the wave of genre-bending mockumentaries such as Exit Through the Gift Shop, where audiences are unsure of how serious the subject matter is and exactly who is getting the last laugh. In the case of I’m Still Here, the joke doesn’t add up. Phoenix and Affleck seem to be laughing at the audience during the entire movie, as if the whole thing were an inside joke. Meanwhile, the audience is laughing at Phoenix trudging shirtless through the murky brown waters of Panama, not caring whether it’s for real or not.
Towards the beginning of the film, Phoenix says, “Love me or hate me, just don’t misunderstand me.” This too must be a joke, for Phoenix is setting himself up to be misunderstood. The sudden career change, the cringe-worthy documentary and now the revelation that it was all an act? Fine. We’ll see the movie, we’ll go home and somewhere out there, Joaquin Phoenix will still be there, oblivious to the fact that, as everyone keeps echoing throughout this film, no one cares.