The most interesting (and arguably greatest success) of I’m Still Here is that seeing I’m Still Here is not likely to change how you feel about I’m Still Here. But it will create nagging doubts. If you walk in convinced it’s a completely engineered attempt to provoke the American media, you’ll pick up on the emotional beats that are just a little too perfect as evidence that it’s a put-on. Doubt however, will creep in as you realize Phoenix never seems to be acting. If you feel Joaquin is on a downward spiral and this is an immoral, exploitative cataloging of his breakdown, you’ll probably still feel that way as the credits roll. You won’t be able to help noticing shots, moments, and even credits that just don’t feel quite right though. This is because I’m Still Here never offers us a pulled-back curtain to assure us that we’re all in on a joke, nor does it present a scenario that is so removed from reality that it could never be believed. Of course Joaquin Phoenix could be as delusional, immature, and unbalanced as he appears in the film, but it could just as easily be an act- the brainchild of a late night of drinking between him and Affleck.
After some childhood footage and a montage setting up Joaquin’s success leading up to his Oscar loss, the documentary starts on a nighttime hill overlooking LA as a hoody-clad Phoenix blusters about his problems with his currently path (“my artistic output thus far has been fraudulent”) and begs to be fully understood. Right away we see a different side from Joaquin Phoenix- gone is the charming mumble, replaced by hyperactive stoner-rambling that sounds like the youngest child whining to the family about being an outcast. It’s a jarring start that tells us that we’ve never really gotten a good window into what Joaquin Phoenix is actually like, or that he’s playing a hell of a character. What follows is his effort to become recognized for his rap music, which he claims is filled with the honesty he’s never been able to express elsewhere. The music is, of course, terrible, but it’s not so incompetent that it can be quickly dismissed as a joke like most funny-because-it’s-bad rap. (As silly as he sounds in concerts, I challenge you to YouTube your favorite rapper and say that low-quality video of a live rap performance is ever flattering to the artist.) Real effort has been put into these songs, and there appears to be a significant amount of material, in which Joaquin demonstrates genuine investment. As Phoenix’s publicist canvasses for established rappers to produce his album, a vague bite from P. Diddy becomes the carrot-on-a-stick that will drive the documentary forward.
Mixed in with his many near-miss attempts to catch a few minutes with the busy rapper is the public reaction to his career shift, as well as the rumors that the whole thing is a hoax. The rockstar life is alluded to a number of times, but from where I sat the scenes of drugs and hookers are the least convincing, and Phoenix is never shown in a state that’s any more dangerous than sounding a bit like a stoned 14-year-old after a Jackass marathon. Alcohol is never much of a presence, even though the actor has had well-reported issues with it in the past. In general, these scenes aren’t particularly impressive or memorably debaucherous, and aren’t much evidence for a tragic downward spiral from which Phoenix might never recover, and that Affleck should be ashamed of himself for exploiting. The relationship between Phoenix and his best friend/handler Anton isn’t necessarily healthy (in fact it’s occasionally very gross), but it’s far from evidence of a complete mental breakdown.
The real dramatic meat of the film (be it simulation or actually tragedy) is the sadness of Phoenix’s quest. Oblivious to the boring, messy quality of his material, he takes every bad performance and nasty internet comment to heart and attempts to pour that negativity into his music, which he is convinced would win people over if they would just listen to it without pre-judgement. That someone is eventually the long-sought P. Diddy, though you can probably guess the result from the lack of a Diddy produced rap-album accompanying the release of I’m Still Here. Sean “Diddy” combs rules both scenes he appears in, with the same matter-of-fact dryness that made him so entertaining in Get Him To The Greek. In fact, assuming a hoax, it seems Affleck didn’t anticipate Combs exploiting his natural screen charism in other films, because his presence is something of a red flag with that in mind.
Watching I’m Still Here in any sort of a vacuum is impossible, but if one views it simply as a documentary that tries to artistically tell a story, how well does it work? All documentary is editorial at best, completely manipulative at worst, so the reality is essentially irrelevant if the two hours are well-spent. In that case, the film fares pretty well. Affleck demonstrates an ability to capture moments both loud and quiet that, even if they feel staged to varying degrees, really drive home the idea that we’re not all meant for all things, and that talent in one field doesn’t necessarily translate to another. There’s a touching sadness, not in any hysteric categorization of self-destruction, but in the story of someone who stumbles into success that isn’t just shallow financial accomplishment, but full critical acclaim in a field they have no passion for. The final moments of the film, set in the waters of “Panama” (Hawaii?) as Phoenix visits “his” father (Afflecks?), are particularly beautiful and present a lingering visual metaphor that is particularly sharp in that it can be interpreted as baptism, or as an Aguirre-esque sink into the abyss.
Ultimately I don’t really buy the film as a telling of real events, but still felt entertained watching it, and satisfied upon walking out. It’s funny, and it does a good job of telling a story, capturing human moments, acknowledging the rumors surrounding the events in question, and exploring what happens when you stir up the modern-media hornet’s nest, all the while playing it totally straight. It’s not perfect, and maybe bites off more than it can chew as a meta-philosophical experiment that blurs the lines of reality and simulacra. There’s much to be said about what is real and what isn’t considering, no matter the agenda, Phoenix actually rapped at public concerts, and actually appeared on Late Night as he did, and actually stopped being in films for several years. The film isn’t capable of bringing up these questions though, which is why the discussion surrounding I’m Still Here is being constantly characterized as more interesting than the actual film.
I’m Still Here is legitimately brave though, even if it preemptively (and perhaps childishly) takes delight in the hyper-revolted response of a media culture that doesn’t like being judged, and an audience that doesn’t like engaging vague situations simply to be toyed with- we like to know what side of the glass we’re on. Watching famous people burn is fun… but only when we know the flames are real. The documentary is successful no matter how you slice it- it told a story, and it fucked with us. They win regardless, but you can be in on the joke if you want.