Joaquin Phoenix may truly have walked away from a much-heralded acting career two years ago to pursue his artistic expression as a rapper. His look, which went from dark and mysterious to shaggy and doughy, may simply have been part of his transformative process.
It becomes increasingly difficult to care about discerning what's real and what's a hoax as the documentary "I'm Still Here" drones on. We have to use the word "documentary" loosely, however, because it suggests an attempt at capturing fact on film. What "I'm Still Here" captures is questionable.
Casey Affleck, an esteemed actor in his own right who is directing for the first time, gets such intimate access to Phoenix, it's often uncomfortable to watch, especially when Phoenix is bent over a toilet yacking or having a particularly vile prank played on him while he's asleep.
That's unsurprising, given that Affleck is married to Phoenix's sister, Summer, and the two co-starred in Gus Van Sant's "To Die For" 15 years ago. And similar to Van Sant's recent films, "I'm Still Here" often has a natural aesthetic and a languid, meandering vibe that makes you wonder what's going to happen next — that is, if you're still awake.
Affleck's camera stalks Phoenix as he walks and talks and rants and smokes (four things he does for the entirety of the film), and tries to explain the conundrum of reconciling art and celebrity. If he watches his own performances, does he become too conscious of them, and does that affect future performances? If he reads articles about himself that describe him as emotional and intense, is he really that way, or does he become that way because it's the image that's being projected onto him?
Intriguing existential questions, all. And at times, "I'm Still Here" does give the impression that it's trying to achieve an understanding of the fragility of fame. Mostly, though, it feels like an elaborate put-on, with celebrities such as Ben Stiller and Sean Combs in on the joke. The fact that Affleck often has multiple cameras going at once is a hint. So are the closing credits, in which Affleck and Phoenix are listed as co-writers.
If there is an actual structure here, though, it's often elusive. Phoenix complains a lot about being misunderstood, gives passionate bear hugs to fellow actors Sean Penn, Bruce Willis, Jack Nicholson and Danny Glover at a play rehearsal, and makes a halfhearted attempt at attending President Obama's inauguration. He also snorts what looks like cocaine off the naked breasts of a woman who is supposedly a prostitute, smokes joint after joint and cavorts with the various sycophants who are constantly around and frequently nude.
He also raps — badly. His rhymes are monotone, his beats are tinny and his lyrics are inane. He agonizes in his home studio and performs awkwardly on stage in front packed, bewildered crowds in Las Vegas and Miami. When he finally gets Combs to sit down and listen to his demo, Combs is polite but direct: Phoenix is not good enough to do this. The producer's reaction crushes Phoenix.
But is it a genuine reaction? Phoenix does seem crestfallen, and beats himself up as convincingly as he does after his infamously painful Letterman appearance. (Affleck includes the whole interview, which is just as much of a scream as it was when it first aired in 2008.) Then again, this is a two-time Oscar nominee for "Gladiator" and "Walk the Line." This is a guy who can be frighteningly good at what he does — when it comes to acting, at least.
Ultimately, though, the person depicted in "I'm Still Here" becomes more sullen, demanding, abusive and paranoid. If we're truly witnessing the unraveling of a talented man in his prime, it's just sad. If it's all performance art, though, it's just pointless.