It’s hard to watch a film with the same sort of subjectivity once it’s been spoiled for you, therefore it makes it difficult to write a review for said film. Unfortunately, I’m Still Here was not just spoiled for me before I saw it, it was spoiled for most of the world’s population. This film was admitted to be a hoax less than a week after it was released. Of course, the general speculation circulated around the rumor mill/blogosphere that the film was a hoax before it was even done filming. While I understand the need to finally reveal the truth about the film, especially when most people suspected it anyway, it would’ve been nice to ride it out for a little while longer. It would have been nice to have seen the film with the state of mind that was originally intended. Obviously fake or not, some level of doubt would have been nice.
For those of you that have lived in a cave, I’m Still Here is a “documentary” film that follows actor Joaquin Phoenix as he decides to retire from acting and pursue his dream of becoming a rapper. He’s talked into letting his brother-in-law Casey Affleck follow him around with a camera for months as he attempts to make the transition, slowly unraveling and becoming more temperamental as he goes. As he goes, so does most of his entourage, including his struggling musician/assistant that betrays him by telling the media that everything is a hoax.
Now, I will say, that I believe Affleck when he says that the film was never intended to be an outright hoax. There are some scenes, especially once the film starts nearing its conclusion, where the facade is stretched pretty thin. Phoenix simply plays a bit far too over the top in some instances and there are some goings on that I just don’t feel like any celebrity,even the most self-destructive of artists, would allow to be filmed. Then there’s that fact that, even if you were falling for the joke, the end credits confirm that the film was written by Phoenix and Affleck. I’m not sure how some of the critics that saw this film early on missed that point, but they did. Way to pay attention, people.
No, the film is obviously a performance piece that’s meant to tweak our tabloid media and the way we publicly perceive our celebrities as if we know everything about them, even though they’re complete strangers. For this, I do appreciate the film. Phoenix spent almost two years of his life playing this role and he dragged the rest of the world along with him the entire time. He simply took the public perception of himself as moody, odd and probably drug addled artiste and over-exaggerated it to the Nth degree. You look at it now and it seems obviously ridiculous, but a culture that relishes running down its celebrities is always hungry for this sort of public meltdown. The tabloid media couldn’t get enough of it and neither could the public. Everyone was all too eager to believe the hype.
Phoenix, for what it’s worth, did one hell of a performance for two years with, of course, the finest moment coming during his infamous appearance on David Letterman. It’s a pretty astounding piece of method acting to not break character for a two-year period, especially when you’re potentially harming your career in the process. Although, I’m sure Phoenix and Affleck had some profoundly triumphant moments as they watched their ruse take hold of the world stage. There’s a moment in the film when they show how much of a joke Phoenix had become, showing clips ranging from the Oscar telecast to every talk show host on TV to dozens of YouTube clips where Joaquin is mocked, made the butt of jokes or impersonated. He simply was THE punchline on everyone’s lips for several months at a time. They managed to punk the world, even as their own camp would leak to the media that this is all a hoax. They knew, even with that seed of doubt planted in everyone’s mind, we’d all still want to believe that what we were watching is real, because failure is far more enjoyable and much funnier. It’s also what we already halfway thought Phoenix was in the first place. In the end this all becomes more of the film holding up a mirror and showing us all just how petty and gullible we can be.
The problem is, all that we saw leading up to watching the film sort of sabotages the performance that only went on for the film itself. While the acting we saw in public was perfect, perhaps brilliant, the “private” footage is far too unhinged to be believable during some stints. I’m sure it’s a conscious decision to help the reveal that this was all just a performance and not reality, but that doesn’t keep it from being bad acting, nor does it keep it from hurting the film. He ranges from cartoonish hippy to petulant, pouty child and borders on total cliché with each aspect. He dumbs himself down to a point that’s just becomes unbelievable. I’m not going to believe you turned into a stonier version of Jeff Spicoli overnight. There are other moments though, that are genius. In between his claims of wanting to escape Hollywood and be a real artist, he throws tantrums over things like being in a minivan instead of a limo or getting a shitty hotel room. Watching him as he hangs on every negative thing said about him, be it from comedian or internet blogger is pathetically funny. He obsesses over every boo and each insult, taking them to heart and letting them fuel him awful lyrics, even as he begins to lose confidence. The moment he has a breakdown over his stupid decision would have been gut wrenching if you still had any notion this could be factual. He deserves credit for taking the role full tilt and being willing to completely embarrass himself to people who weren’t in the know, but so much is so far over the top that it just doesn’t work and overpowers the parts that do.
There’s also the problem that there isn’t a lot to latch onto. Most of the best bits are the parts where he’s pulling others into this pretend world without them knowing what’s going on and there’s very little of that which you haven’t already seen. Everything that happened publicly, including every rap appearance he made, was well covered in the media and by dozens of cell phone cameras. Every meltdown he had with a reporter or on a talk show or at a premier was well documented. The bits involving those not in the know that you haven’t seen, are too few and far between. The best involve P.Diddy, who Joaquin is trying to convince to produce his album. Diddy clearly isn’t comfortable with anything going on or the fact that it’s being filmed. It’s funny to watch him squirm as he shifts between trying to be as polite as he can be and being brutally honest. he obviously just wants it to be over with as quickly as possible.
This is where so much opportunity is wasted. There are just not enough scenes involving people not in on the joke. Ben Stiller, if he honestly didn’t know what was going on, is so much like he on-screen persona that it doesn’t play realistically. Edward James Olmos is so fucking weird that he makes Joaquin seem normal in the scene. Beyond that, you have the Letterman interview that we’ve all seen a zillion times and some random studio/agent types that could be in on the act and don’t do anything interesting. That’s sad, because Phoenix and Affleck stage some scenes that could have been brilliant had they shown how these Hollywood types actually act instead of just alluding to it. There’s a part of the film where Phoenix is show ordering hookers to his room and doing huge amounts of coke. It’s obviously supposed to spotlight how out of control a celebrity is allowed to get and how no one will step in to tell you no. However, when the only other people in the scene are in on the joke, it loses a lot of its power. A scene where Phoenix mourns that he’s broke, about to lose his house and no one cares plays sort of the same. There’s a lot missed opportunities here.
Finally, the major problem with the film overall is that it’s mostly dull. The fact that you know the whole story already from the reports as it was being filmed take away any real surprise. Knowing that it’s not real takes away the fascination that the is it or isn’t it factor would have provided. Some badly overacted moments and as well as ones that weren’t thought out enough leave you with too many things that pull you out of the film. That leaves you with a lot of filler that just isn’t interesting to watch. There’s just only so many times you can watch Phoenix mumble similar dialogue about how he’s being true to himself now as he smokes a cigarette.
This ultimately falls into that category of movies I appreciate, but don’t like. I respect Phoenix for doing this. It took incredible balls to jeopardize your career in order to get a point across. Unfortunately, it’s a lesson that I don’t think anyone really learned and in this twenty-four hour tabloid news cycle that’s engulfed our country, the whole thing is already totally forgotten. Phoenix and Affleck bamboozled the media for nearly two years, and all of us with them, yet no one feels any dumber for playing right into their hands. If this had been done just a little better, maybe played a bit meaner in Borat fashion, it could have been a classic. It could’ve been the gold standard for meta-joke philosophizing on modern media and celebrity. Instead it ends up being just an inside joke sort of home movie that Affleck and Phoenix can get a chuckle out of for years to come. That’s not going to be worth it if this does indeed hurt Joaquin’s career.