A skilful blend of performance art, documentary and elaborate hoax, I’m Still Here is a clever and frequently hilarious deconstruction of Hollywood celebrity.
You may have also seen the now infamous appearance on Letterman where he came across like a rogue Rabbi strung out on heroin:
Beginning with some intriguing home movie footage of Phoenix’s childhood, it is essentially a raucous fly-on-the-wall document of Phoenix’s apparent ‘career suicide’ over the last two years.
The actor has clearly put a great deal of effort into creating a sublimely horrible alter-ego.
He has grown a beard, put on weight and not been afraid to perform this role in public, which gives the film an extra post-modern flavour.
We see him meeting with his publicist and agent, attempt to hook up with Sean ‘Diddy’ Combes, berate Ben Stiller about the script of Greenberg, get life advice from Edward James Olmos, rap at a hotel in Miami, take copious amounts of drugs, abuse his assistants and generally act like a delusional celebrity ogre.
The film gets really meta when it incorporates the very idea that this whole project as a hoax.
Phoenix gets paranoid that his assistant ‘Anton’ has been leaking information to the media, which leads to a particularly messy confrontation.
Throughout Phoenix arguably gives the performance of his career in playing this twisted version of himself, in which he toys with the audience’s expectations of who and what he is. It is compelling and ludicrous in equal measure.
When this fake Joaquin is placed in real situations such as concerts, press junkets, airports filled with paparazzi and TV chat shows, the results are hilariously awkward.
At times it is all a bit too similar to the work of Larry Charles and Sacha Baron Cohen: an improvised comedy featuring a central character in real situations, shot in a vérité style on digital cameras.
But unlike Borat or Bruno, in which we know Baron Cohen is playing a role, this has the added dimension of Phoenix playing a version of himself, which has led to a debate about the authenticity of the film.
After premiering at the Venice Film Festival last week and getting a limited U.S. release last Friday, much of the media seemed genuinely confused as to whether it is real or not.
It seems absolutely clear, to me at least, that this whole project is an elaborate joke in which reality has been cunningly blended into the overall mix.
But does anyone actually believe that he wanted to give up acting to become a hip-hop star?
Certain sequences, especially the one with Stiller, seem staged and the parts with Diddy are also debatable.
The rapper was either duped or has impeccable comic timing. One line in which he declares an Affleck film (possibly Gone Baby Gone) to be ‘whack’ is priceless.
But there are certain scenes where the mask of the film drops (perhaps intentionally?).
At one point his publicist is caught grinning backstage at the infamous Letterman taping, another features a seemingly scripted gag about Revolutionary Road and there is one piece of dialogue that seems to have been dubbed in post-production.
Note also that the film is a ‘They They Are Going to Kill Us‘ production.
The conceit of the film is cunning as it plays around with our perceptions of who, or what, a celebrity is and gets added spice from Phoenix continuing his performance in areas where other actors wouldn’t normally dare.
Certain moments hold a brilliantly awkward mirror up to modern celebrity: concerts featuring audiences filming everything on their phones, DIY paparazzi posting commentary on the web and a press junket for Two Lovers where Phoenix is ‘offended’ by journalists.
The bit where Phoenix announces his retirement to an entertainment reporter from Extra is pitch perfect, as it cuts the TV footage which ran that night with Affleck’s footage from a different angle.
This is almost the film in microcosm. By contrasting the nonsense world of showbiz journalism with the fake world of the documentary, Affleck has created a hall of mirrors in which one reflects the other.
By feeding the media machine deliberately confusing information during the making of the film, it seems like some outlets have been unable to process the overall joke, as part of the narrative involves their own reporting. Bamboozled? That was probably Affleck’s intention.
The director himself has been supremely coy about all this – his interviews at Venice were brilliantly evasive – and I’m not sure how far they are going to take the concept now that the film is out in the U.S., albeit in limited release.
Are recent reports of sexual harassment charges against the production real or part of the elaborate fake story?
I’m Still Here could be a performance art experiment where even the filmmakers have lost track of the monster they have created.
Phoenix is apparently going to return to Letterman next week, so I’m sure that the debate will rumble on (even if he does or doesn’t turn up).
Either way, the nature of the material has given what is a fairly low-budget film a lot of free publicity.
The chatter will no doubt continue, especially amongst audiences, but the bottom line is that this is still one of the funniest portrayals of celebrity in recent memory.
* UPDATE 17/09/10: Affleck has now told the New York Times that the whole film was a hoax. I guess annoying serious journalists was part of the wider joke 😉