“I’m just fucking, like, stuck, in this ridiculous, like, self-imposed prison.” Joaquin Phoenix does look a little stuck. Pacing so the camera handled by his brother-in-law, Casey Affleck, is mostly watching his back, he wears a sweatshirt hood and dark glasses. “Am I truly complicated and intense?” he asks, but not, like, really. He’s agreed to do this documentary with his best friend and brother-in-law Casey Affleck, he goes on, because he doesn’t want to “play the character Joaquin anymore.” He’s insists that he doesn’t care whether you hate him or like him, and says he only wants to be understood.
Like most every performance in I’m Still Here, this one is unconvincing. That doesn’t mean it’s not earnest or authentic. It only means that in its manifest effort to vex, the act is pretty much exactly what it purports to repudiate. Cut to Phoenix waving a broom at a bird, at some unknown time, stuck inside his studio, a metaphor only slightly less heavy-handed than the home movie footage of Phoenix-as-a-child jumping into water, his dad his audience. A couple of scenes later, in “San Francisco, 2008,” he’s telling a reporter he’s decided to quit. (Why did he say it, Edward James Olmos asks many months later, at which point Phoenix self-assesses: “I don’t know, I opened my mouth and the fucking words came out!”) The story spreads quickly, as does the related news that Phoenix is now a rapper named JP, because rap allows real self-expression—which suggests he doesn’t listen to much of it, or that he knows exactly how silly he looks and sounds when he puts on his suit and white shirt and holey knit cap and blusters his way through a song on stage.
His audience in these moments looks aptly tentative, alternately mystified, bored, and mustering enthusiasm as the camera pans their faces. If their acts are less consistent than Phoenix’s, they do indicate the interdependence of artist and audience, the mutual faith or doubt that shapes their relationship. Phoenix right away confronts charges that he’s fooling. When he seeks out P. Diddy to produce his rap CD, Phoenix confronts suspicions: “I think he thinks you’re not serious,” observes an associate, that the retirement and the shift to rapping (another elaborate act) constitute a hoax. If Phoenix’s move is something like a response to the hoax of acting per se, the movie is not a hoax but an agreement between viewers and performers.
For all the shocky-shock antics presented here—Phoenix smokes dope, snorts cocaine, abuses his assistants, and buries his face in a hooker’s breasts—the film also dramatizes the costs of living inside a relentlessly cruel and demanding business. It’s “hard” to be a high profile actor, Phoenix laments, concerned with public image and hangers-on and career moves. Whether he’s playing one character Joaquin (clean-shaven, polite) or another (addled, cranky, arrogant), the process is the same. He needs to keep his audience in mind.
This audience—whoever it is—matters. But maybe not the way you imagine. The audience is part of the machinery that produces and uses the performance, but it doesn’t need to like it, only wrestle with it. It’s a good trick to consider this relationship in a format that appears to be so one-sided, that makes the viewing experience so uncomfortable, as well as funny and perverse (see: Phoenix in Panama, sitting silently with his father, played by Affleck’s father).
The question is not whether the new Phoenix or even the movie is a hoax—all documentaries show performances, selves designed for cameras. The more interesting question has to do with you: do you want to believe the film, and why? Because Phoenix and Affleck have called it a documentary? Because the cameras are handheld and the addresses direct? Because it confirms your sense of the world, that is, that Phoenix’s life is an over-determined mess?
This sense has, of course, been set up by a long-form performance that seems to corroborate the damaged celebrity stereotype. The movie helpfully reiterates a series of recent exploits and gives them a context (and so makes them seem less incoherent than they looked the first time you saw them). Phoenix appears to melt down on Letterman and raps-and-fights in Miami’s LIV nightclub. After Letterman, Phoenix sits in the dark, his expression mostly vacant and sort of upset, watching the ensuing mockery on his laptop (starting with Ben Stiller at the Oscars). And after LIV, the camera follows him backstage, close on his back until he reaches the men’s room, where he throws up—a lot.
Phoenix’s excesses are reinforced repeatedly by his yes-menny friends/assistants, Antony and Larry (as well as Affleck, on and off screen). They’re also granted a particular reality when set alongside other stars, like Mos Def (who suggests the rap idea is “epic”), Stiller (who takes a meeting with Phoenix concerning Greenberg), and Olmos (who submits a mystical speech about water drops and consciousness). When JP finally does meet with Diddy (who knows something about self-naming and -performing), the frame rests on Mr. Rap Mogul’s astonished face, eyes glazing over while the demo pounds in the background. Phoenix hovers, his sunglasses duct-taped and his affect low, until Puffy announces, “You’re not ready to record with me.”
In the parking lot, Phoenix acts surprised at Diddy’s rejection (“Shit!”). His next act, with Letterman, is peculiar and familiar, as repetition and seeming absence; famously, his collaborator Dave concludes, “Joaquin, I’m sorry you couldn’t be here tonight.” But all the acts make the same point, that they are acts, that he’s not here and is still here too. “My life is becoming a film about me not wanting to make a film,” Phoenix frets. Apparently frustrated, he walks away from the camera more than once, shuts a door on it, runs from a limo to hide in Central Park bushes and cry, “I’ve fucked my fucking life.” Maybe. Or maybe, as I’m Still Here submits, it only looks like that.