This post was first published by Suite101. It contains spoilers.
In 2008 Hollywood began to notice that one of its most well-regarded actors was behaving rather strangely. Joaquin Phoenix – nominated for two academy awards, and perhaps most famous for his role as Johnny Cash in the 2005 film Walk The Line – was conducting himself in a way that seemed decidedly out of character for a performer with such a serious and established career. The popular actor grew a messy beard, put on weight, and become increasingly incoherent and hostile in interviews. The media didn’t really know what to make of the new Joaquin Phoenix. This shift in personality was later revealed to be an elaborate hoax, set up in order to film a documentary about the nature of celebrity and the relationship between public figures – such as Phoenix – and the media. The result is I’m Still Here, directed by Casey Affleck and written by Affleck and Phoenix. And while the idea is an interesting experiment, the documentary itself is disappointing.
The film begins with Joaquin Phoenix announcing his retirement from acting and his plan to embark on a career in rap music. Affleck (Phoenix’s brother-in-law) is filming, ostensibly in order to document Phoenix’s transition from actor to hip-hop artist. The film follows Phoenix, and a fluctuating entourage of friends and film stars, as he strives to make a name for himself in the music world. The documentary is set mostly in L.A., and loosely revolves around Phoenix’s efforts to have rap artist Sean Combs (a.k.a. P. Diddy) record with him. As the film progresses Phoenix becomes increasingly frustrated, self-obsessed, and aggressive. It is clear that he is heading towards catastrophic failure and a potential breakdown, but nobody seems able (or inclined, perhaps) to help him.
The idea of being famous – the wealth, the glamorous acquaintances, the constant media attention – is fascinating. What does it really feel like to be a celebrity, and how does it affect personality and mental health? These are questions that Phoenix and Affleck attempt to answer in I’m Still Here. However, very little is revealed in the documentary. The audience watches as an actor with a previously very successful and stable career slowly throws everything away. It is not clear in the film why he decides to do this, and the audience quickly loses interest. The media, as Phoenix and Affleck carried out their hoax in 2008, didn’t pay much attention either, aside from a few bewildered comments and jabs at Phoenix’s beard. The documentary itself is often hard to watch – there are a number of crude sequences that don’t seem to add anything to the audience’s understanding of the film – and it is difficult to sympathise with any of the characters. In the end, while the private lives and psychoses of the rich and famous can often be entertaining and enlightening, I’m Still Here reveals nothing new.
I’m Still Here was first released in 2010, and runs for 108 minutes. It is rated R for sexual material, graphic nudity, pervasive language, some drug use and crude content.