Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Sean Combs, Antony Langdon
Directed by: Casey Affleck (debut)
Written by: Casey Affleck (“Gerry”) and Joaquin Phoenix (debut)
While watching a scruffy Joaquin Phoenix drop lyrics on a club stage to a fairly disinterested crowd in his new film “I’m Still Here,” it’s difficult not to think about the scene in Spike Jonze’s “Being John Malkovich” where a possessed Malkovich calls his agent to tell him he no longer wants to be an actor. Instead, he’d like to be known as a puppeteer.
The occupational switch was just as exaggerated when Phoenix revealed to the world in 2008 that he would retire from acting to pursue a career as a hip-hop artist. It was the kind of news one would usually snicker at and disregard if it wasn’t for a hint of believability stemming from Phoenix’s awkward exchange during a broadcast interview with late-night host David Letterman last year.
Whether we’re watching a mockumentary or a documentary in “I’m Still Here,” Phoenix deserves credit for either having the stamina to stay in character these last two years or having the backbone to take the ridicule that’s sure to follow him for the rest of his career if he was actually serious about becoming a rapper.
At best, “I’m Still Here” is a curiosity piece for those who have been following the Phoenix circus this entire time. From a broader perspective, it’s actually quite depressing when you think about how much time he wasted on what is more than likely just an elaborate, artistic hoax. Instead, he could have actually been shooting something less irrelevant.
That’s not to say “I’m Still Here” was void of all value. The idea to dissect the pretentiousness of celebrity is laid out nicely. Phoenix works as the unstable subject because he doesn’t seem like the type of person that would come as easily unhinged as he does here. In the film, Phoenix, who was coming off an Oscar nomination for “Walk the Line” at the start of production, announces to his inner circle that he “doesn’t want to play the character of Joaquin” and “doesn’t want to be misunderstood anymore.”
From here we watch Phoenix attempt to reinvent himself in the rap game. The first half of the film is Phoenix becoming increasingly frustrated as Sean “P-Diddy” Combs, who Phoenix wants to produce his first album, can’t find the time to sit down for a meeting. Combs is convincing enough as are others who come face to face with Phoenix during his transformation. Comedian Ben Stiller show up in a cameo hoping to talk Phoenix in taking a part in his new film “Greenberg.” Even actor Edward James Olmos, known for his motivational speaking skills, comes in to give some sound philosophical advice to his young fellow actor.
Whether it’s fake or not isn’t even really important as the film continues to trudge along in the second half. By that time, Phoenix and all his scenes of mumbling, emotional outbursts, and self reflection wear thin. It would have come a lot sooner if everyone involved wasn’t so committed. Even then “I’m Still Here” becomes the exact thing it was satirizing in the first place: a self-important product of Hollywood.