Phoenix flips the bird
Phoenix might have staged much of this film, but the anger and rage that accompany him in every frame seem nothing but real.
I’m Still Here, debauched celebrity breakdown, rated R, The Screen, 2 chiles
Chasing marijuana joints with cocaine is a practice that goes by many names, but the physical effect is invariably the same: speech that is both accelerated and slurred. It is also the sort of diction that actor Joaquin Phoenix uses during much of the new documentary I’m Still Here — his normally rich baritone banter so scrambled by cannabis and coca that his monologues are often subtitled in order to be understood at all.
Filmed and directed by Phoenix’s brother-in-law Casey Affleck, the movie is purportedly a year in Phoenix’s life as he embarks on a career-shredding self-destructive and drug-addled nervous breakdown. In February 2009, the Phoenix who appeared on The Late Show With David Letterman was a mumbling, disheveled mess, announcing that he was forsaking acting for a hip-hop career. He refused to answer most of Letterman’s questions, prompting Letterman to quip, “I’m sorry you couldn’t be here tonight.” The broadcast seemed to catch Phoenix in the middle of his delirious free fall. Yet little that was written about the event in the press prepares the viewer for the rank crudeness of this documentary of Phoenix’s bygone year.
Sandwiched between grainy footage of Phoenix having sex with prostitutes and even more grainy footage of his assistants defecating on him are long, painful takes of Phoenix’s ludicrous attempts to become a rap star — he believes he can score a record deal with Sean “Diddy” Combs. If this is enough to completely turn you off to the documentary, just file this one as an “onion” and stop reading now. For those who find entertainment and enlightenment in celebrity self-laceration, by all means read on.
Much ink has been spilled over whether this documentary is cinéma vérité or a “prankumentary” hoax, but a single viewing of this film should silence that debate. For starters, it comes with writing credits. Phoenix’s father is “played” by Affleck’s dad. And as anyone who watched 2005’s Walk the Line could tell, Phoenix is a highly talented musician who played and sang all of Johnny Cash’s material in the biopic. In this film, even Diddy seems to question Phoenix’s sincerity in creating wretched hip-hop dreck, with lyrics that include such memorable lines as “I keep it real / I never kneel / I’m the chosen one, bitch.”
This film is not a hoax so much as an exhausted middle finger to fame, fortune, and reputation. I’m Still Here is an act of biting the hand that feeds you on par with Prince changing his name to an unpronounceable glyph in the mid-1990s or The Rolling Stones’ decision to record a number of obscenely titled songs in the late ’60s to free themselves from an unfair record contract.
Phoenix would certainly not be the first wealthy, highly talented actor to break down in the face of fame. But he may have more legitimate reasons than most. It’s not the first time Phoenix has left acting, which he quit for a year after the fatal 1993 overdose of his older brother, actor River Phoenix. As a child he was raised by hippie parents inside the Children of God religious cult. The parents then abandoned the sect and forced their children into acting and performing as a means of supporting the family. So when Phoenix complains in this movie that acting is nothing more than living his life as a puppet, it’s not just the malaise of a spoiled-brat actor but the long howl of someone who has had to make ends meet all his life by pretending to be someone else.
All that said, there is no reason why bowing out of the movie business should require Phoenix to film himself snorting cocaine, forcing his assistants to submit to full-frontal nude shots, and hiring prostitutes online while commenting on the smells of their orifices. The legions of scatological acts committed in this movie rank up there with those in Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel or, perhaps, Johnny Knoxville’s Jackass series of gross-out stunts. Yet they are performed with a joylessness that would be out of place in either of those works.
Yes, Phoenix might have staged much of this film, but the anger and rage that accompany him in every frame seem nothing but real. For better or worse, the film does a precise job of capturing Phoenix’s emotional and physical devolution from a bewildered, unkempt actor who has cast off his personal trainer to a coke-snorting would-be rapper who resembles a potbellied vampire before finally achieving his apotheosis as a pale human-yak hybrid who wears sunglasses and dangles lit cigarettes from his pallid lips all day long.
If there’s any hint of redemption in this film, it’s in the last five minutes, when Phoenix retreats to a lush Panama waterfall, the scene of a childhood reverie. It may be tacked on and utterly made up, but after watching a hour and a half of this body-fluid-drenched mess, it’s almost required — a necessary emotional closure that allows you to exit the theater without lead in your heart.