With the release of “I’m Still Here,” the mockumentary has officially come full circle. Actors have already played roles in documentary-style comedies (“This is Spinal Tap,” “Best in Show”), they’ve combined that format with real-life pranks (“Borat,” “Bruno”), and they’ve played fictional versions of themselves for laughs (“Curb Your Enthusiasm,” “Extras”).
This time the performance art never ends. Directed by Casey Affleck and starring his brother-in-law Joaquin Phoenix, “I’m Still There” is a rambling mess of a film that has given Phoenix the longest-running and most challenging role of his career: that of a mentally ill, drugged-out former actor named Joaquin Phoenix who wants to become a rap artist.
If we had less background on the star and his director—if these guys were nobodies just starting a movie career—the setup may be a little more believable. The paradox of course is that it wouldn’t be interesting in the slightest because it’s precisely Phoenix’s stature as a celebrity that gives the movie a reason to exist.
As it is, the only real mystery is how many other people were in on the joke. (I use the word “joke” lightly because although “I’m Still Here” is often times edited for comedic effect, it is rarely very funny.) If his assistant Antony and caretaker Larry—as they are titled in the film—are not also playing some sort of fictional versions of themselves along with Phoenix, then they got a raw deal indeed. They are the on the receiving end of a ton of Phoenix’s verbal abuse, and are goaded into a wholly unnecessary amount of full-frontal nudity.
The reasons for Affleck filming the whole affair are as mysterious as the seeds of Phoenix’s self-imposed flameout and his desire to rap. Perhaps the actor himself was close to quitting the acting business and acted this all out as a catharsis. Even if that’s the case, it’s more than a little suspicious that the guy who has himself directed numerous rock music videos never once mentions a single rap influence or shows any interest in the music side of hip-hop at all.
Instead, there are a couple of scenes where he slops his way through some grandiose lyrical jams that aren’t clever enough to be funny or smart enough to be taken seriously. P. Diddy, the rap mogul that provides “I’m Still Here” with the only forward motion it has, is still asking Phoenix during their second meeting if this is all a put-on. His blank stare while listening to Phoenix’s demos actually provide the biggest laugh in the movie and Diddy seems to have been genuinely “Punk’d.”
Ben Stiller’s ribbing of the actor’s bearded-sunglasses look at the Oscars is sequenced after a scene where Stiller tries to convince a confrontational Phoenix to costar with him in “Greenberg.” The setup is perfect because now Stiller’s impression looks like a very public revenge, but who’s to say it wasn’t filmed after the Oscars and sequenced first in the film?
Phoenix and Affleck have both worked with indie auteur Gus Van Sant, and this movie feels like a cross one of his experimental films and an unsuccessful Andy Kaufman publicity stunt.
How far are the pair willing to go with this all-or-nothing filmmaking and acting experiment? If we are to believe they are the only ones in on it, then the answer to that is kind of shocking. But why leave all that wreckage in their path if there’s no real point; no insightful takeaway?
If “I’m Still Here” were more coherent, it could be a satire of one of many things: self-obsessed celebrity behavior, needy actors, the post-movie publicity tour, the cult and power of celebrity, or self-glorifying hip-hop culture. Its lack of focus keeps it from achieving any of these ideas.
In the end, the entire affair is a catch-22. “I’m Still Here” brings up countless questions about media and the amount of falsehoods inherent in it—all of those questions more interesting than actually watching the movie. Maybe it was intended on a wider scale as a send-up of the whole documentary format—a format that’s built on artifice that at some level is masquerading as the truth.
“I don’t want to play the character of Joaquin anymore,” Phoenix says, exasperated. After watching “I’m Still Here,” I don’t want him to either.