I’m Still Here (Magnolia Pictures, R)

If this is Phoenix playing the part of ‘asshole going through a life change,’ it’s a brilliant, cutting-edge performance. But if this is truly a documentary to be taken at face value, then it’s a troubling (if provocative) piece of celluloid.

Celebrities do a lot of unpredictable things—that’s why they’re fun to watch. When they are charming and self-effacing about their foibles, à la Hugh Grant, we tend to forgive them their transgressions. But when they seem like spoiled, clueless jerks, à la Lindsay Lohan, they test our patience and end up hurting their careers. So what in the world are we to make of Joaquin Phoenix and his now-infamous decision to ditch his acting career (which served him well with big movies like Gladiator and Walk the Line) to, uh, become a hip-hop artist? In early 2009, Phoenix made this startling announcement, but there was something unsavory and suspicious about it. That description also applies to the Casey Affleck-directed documentary on the subject,  I’m Still Here. It’s a fascinating piece of film, don’t get me wrong. I was riveted from start to finish. But trying to figure out how much of it is staged for the cameras (or is an outright con, as some have suggested), and how much is Phoenix genuinely struggling with his career is challenging, and sort of irksome.
The bearded, shambling, foul-mouthed wacko who stumbles through many of the scenes in I’m Still Here is a character, all right. He bears only a tangential relationship to the acclaimed actor who once portrayed Johnny Cash. “I’m stuck in this self-imposed prison of characterization,” Phoenix says early on, in an attempt to explain why he wants to make a change. Half of the film is him ranting about his profession, complaining that he can’t be himself and launching into expletive-laced tirades against anyone who dares to question his motives. If this is Phoenix playing the part of ‘asshole going through a life change,’ it’s a brilliant, cutting-edge performance. But if this is truly a documentary to be taken at face value, then it’s a troubling (if provocative) piece of celluloid. Phoenix tries to enlist Sean “P. Diddy” Combs to produce a proposed rap album, but can’t decide how to address him on the phone. Then he’s mortified when he shows up late to a meeting with the hip-hop magnate. Naturally, Phoenix is his own worst enemy. We watch him taking drugs, cavorting with hookers and being reckless and irresponsible with everything important. Beyond this, he rants nonstop, flailing his arms about and blaming his problems on everyone else, including the public.
 “Like me or hate me, just don’t misunderstand me,” Phoenix pleads—but what are we supposed to understand? That he really doesn’t like acting? That he wasn’t being himself when he played all those characters? That the true Joaquin is this annoying, unconvincing wannabe-rapper who is so obnoxious that he leaps into the audience to attack a heckling fan at a Miami nightclub, only one song into his supposed debut? This film is fraught with opportunities to misunderstand Sham-master J, although you’re not without sympathy for his plight. A highlight of the film is the legendary David Letterman talk-show debacle, which finds the host dryly asking Joaquin, “So, what can you tell us about your days with the Unabomber?” Of course, the well-deserved comic skewering comes after it is already obvious that the actor has no intention of being a cooperative guest. Phoenix is clearly rattled before and after the Letterman show (context is valuable here), and the look on his beleaguered publicist’s (Sue Patricola) face as she watches the waning minutes of the interview is priceless. So is the encounter with Combs, who with utter cool tells Phoenix exactly where he stands with his hip-hop aspirations.
There are also memorable scenes with Edward James Olmos and Ben Stiller, who tries to coax a particularly unhinged Phoenix to take a role in the film Greenberg. This might explain a later parody Stiller did of Phoenix at the Academy Awards. It’s worth mentioning that Affleck, though generally not shown, does make an effort to inject humor into the film. Phoenix himself says some pretty funny things, and even makes your jaw drop at times with his antics.
There are poignant moments in I’m Still Here, for sure, and it’s a crucial addition to the canon of films about the art (or lack thereof) of celebrity itself. But the same question remains afterward that most people had when Phoenix “left” acting: What the hell is going on here? You can try to answer that for yourself by viewing this mesmerizing but stoned-out mess of a documentary, which deserves bonus points for its sheer panache. Oh, and Joaquin? Don’t quit your day job, pal. | Kevin Renick

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