REVIEWED: I’M STILL HERE

I'm Still Here

Phoenix has put on quite the show here.

Going into I’m Still Here, Casey Affleck’s “documentary” of two-time Oscar-nominated actor Joaquin Phoenix’s “breakdown” and attempt at an apparent rap career, one has little idea what to expect. Though Affleck played his hand too early in divulging the film’s artifice mere hours after its release, this is still an enticing – and naturally divisive – artistic experiment which cleverly blurs the line between fact and fiction, and features an indescribably off-kilter performance from its star.

Treated as total fact, I’m Still Here mixes a mediated view of Phoenix’s transitive period – through clips from his TV appearances and even the musings of Youtube users – with his own introspective, idiosyncratic ramblings. The Phoenix we see here is frustrated with his creative station in life, disenfranchised with the idea of being a “fraud” on film, and wanting to apparently wring something truer out of a career in rap music.

Even had Affleck not revealed the film’s big mystery, it would have been fair on the balance of probabilities that the whole gig was a farce. Given that it is a work of performance art, the end result is oddly more impressive, especially of how meticulously Phoenix and Affleck have manipulated the media machine, crafting a snowball of spin that, while a risky manoeuvre for their careers (especially Phoenix’s), is a disturbingly truthful comment on the power of representation and the rabid nature with which the media will pounce on any famous person falling into a spiral.

The film’s loose plot – of Phoenix pursuing an ill-advised rap career – is best dissected as a satire of celebrity self-adulation, interspersed with a blend of demented humour that audiences are either going to brand as an egregious bout of idiocy on Phoenix’s part, or a postmodern work of creative genius. The answer probably lies somewhere in between, for though uneven and distended as it is, the subversive flourishes – such as actually confronting the very idea that the film is a hoax – compensate for how flagrantly, perhaps deliberately, the film is rough around the edges.

If Phoenix has convinced many with this doc that his stunt was real, then he has not only Affleck, but the likes of P. Diddy and Ben Stiller to thank. Diddy, with whom he tries to launch his rap project, plays the hilariously dumbfounded role well, if he is in fact playing at all. Stiller, similarly, in trying to get Joaquin to sign on for a role in Greenberg, is left baffled, and the audience doesn’t fare a whole lot better. The main barometer for how fake the film is, simply, is that nobody could accidentally rap as badly as Phoenix does here.

By its sheer nature, the film runs into problems of accessibility; the dry, fringe humour certainly won’t be to all tastes – a joke about Revolutionary Road receiving Oscar praise over his own Reservation Road will go over the heads of most, given the latter film’s piecemeal release in the UK – and above all else, some judicious editing in the middle section would do the film wonders. The sparseness of the narrative doesn’t really support a 107 minute runtime, and Phoenix’s steam-of-consciousness banter therein creates a few spotty patches, as well as a tirelessly long closing shot of Phoenix wading through a river.

I’m Still Here’s best moments emerge as Phoenix and Affleck observe their own clever interaction with pop culture over the last two years while making this film. At a press junket for his “final” film Two Lovers, we see an utterly disinterested Phoenix mumble his way through some interviews, instead more keen to demo some of his tracks to P. Diddy (an actual scene itself later on which is hilariously awkward). Best of all, that infamous David Letterman interview, in which a spaced-out, despondent Phoenix appears only scarcely sane, is given crucial context; in the scope of what occurs prior to it in this film, his demeanour makes some sort of sense, and Affleck has smartly sutured the “real” media depiction of him with the surer conceit of this film. Also compelling is a lengthy montage in which we see the ripple effect of that appearance; the countless spoofs and parodies.

The weaving of a narrative between the documentary footage and the media’s coverage of his public breakdown is seamless enough to invite suspicion that pick-ups were shot after-the-fact to make the whole thing more convincing. When viewed as what it is – a work of fiction – this is manipulative only in the manner we expect as cinema-goers, yearning to surrender to the conceits of story and character. What Phoenix and Affleck have done here will have to percolate with the collective cinematic consciousness for some time. It may either be regarded as a failed, postured experiment, or an abstract work of genius, though hopefully it simply won’t be forgotten, because you have never seen anything like this.

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