Contemporary actors lauded for their intense, tortured performances tend to wear their methods on their sleeves; you’re aware of their dedication to their suffering for their work. There’s an irritating current of self-congratulation that runs through your typical Russell Crowe or Denzel Washington performance these days. You sense that only the most tormented character of all time would suffice for these actors, just as you sense that said torment, by now, has become a form of shtick for these performers. (The generally unfunny Saturday Night Live features a killer parody of Washington’s faux-humility.) Joaquin Phoenix, on the other hand, stands out as a remarkable exception to this spontaneity-killing smugness—to the point that he’s probably been taken a little too much for granted. That’s because Phoenix—even as Johnny Cash—refuses to turn his characters’ tangled self-laceration into camp that’s easier to identify and praise. Phoenix characters appear to shy away from the camera, so you have to go looking for them. Most any other actor would have turned Phoenix’s role in Two Lovers into a quest for Marty-ish pathos. With Phoenix, though, you’re allowed to gradually grasp the character’s emotional constipation.
The most primal draw of participating in a project like I’m Still Here, Phoenix’s mock-documentary collaboration with actor/co-writer/director/brother-in-law Casey Affleck, is one that has probably gripped every tormented film actor since at least Brando: the opportunity to destroy and rebuild yourself with a performance art context as mildly protective fence that ensures eventual restoration. Writers of varying ranges of capability wasted quite a few words speculating on the “is it real” component of I’m Still Here, a preoccupation that misses the point. Regardless of the fictional context, it’s clear that Phoenix—and, to a lesser extent, Affleck—truly wanted, on some level, to purge themselves with culturally accepted signposts of excess. Phoenix, in a method-acting stunt tailored to fit the instantly disposable “news” climate of the net, wanted to make a stereotypically burned-out spectacle of himself while simultaneously parodying said (self-absorbed) desire to burn out. It’s this dimension of parody that imbues I’m Still Here with unexpected generosity.
We know the specifics before we’ve seen the film; that was obviously the design of the picture from the beginning. Phoenix grew a huge beard and let his hair spring out into uncontrollable tangles, making him seem like a rock-star Chia Pet. There’s the belly, which is pronounced and distracting. There’s the David Letterman appearance that was to ostensibly promote Two Lovers, but which wound up as an Andy Kauffman meta stunt, an embarrassment that many took seriously. There’s Phoenix’s “retirement” from acting in order to pursue a rap career that leads to songs ridiculous enough to qualify for a Christopher Guest film. (My favorite is nearly entirely compromised of the phrase “so compli-fuckin’-cated, so compli-motherfuckin-cated.”) The joke is the ultimate dullness of Phoenix’s bad behavior (booze, coke, hookers); he’s just another performer trading one mode of self-congratulation for another—a white boy romanticizing hip-hop culture as a means of “keeping it real.”
For a while, I’m Still Here is a more vivid than usual mock-doc circus because Phoenix’s performance as a parallel Joaquin Phoenix is characteristically focused and devoted, but the picture gradually gains in dimension and stature. Phoenix doesn’t allow himself escape routes that enable you to secretly like him; he’s a prick, a wreck, an incoherent fraud. Phoenix is startling, as he’s used cannily by Affleck to produce a strange, disturbing distancing effect. Phoenix gives a brutal, unexpectedly tender performance, but the rest of the film has been conceived as broader parody, what with its silly rap songs and the obviously in-the-know celebrity cameos and the general air of clichéd Freudian pomposity. Phoenix and Affleck have created this character and have deliberately displaced him into an atmosphere ripe with over-processed absurdity, and have then thrown him to the wolves in the press—who are more than ready to ignore danger signs that have been planted with the express expectation of being ignored.
Yet I’m Still Here is also sad for a reason that wasn’t intended by its makers: Phoenix put himself through the ringer for two years for a picture that no one saw and that few critics were willing to contend with. I’m Still Here isn’t the Godardian hand grenade that our distracted, judgmental, sensation-happy, celeb-spotting climate so richly deserves, and that’s partially because a hand grenade might be impossible in this culture, as there’s always a different channel for us to turn to. (It’s also useful to remember that Godard’s hand grenades never reached the masses they deserved anyway.) I’m Still Here, despite its shrewdness and its occasional brilliance, never becomes more than the sum of its parts; its deliberately clichéd design limits its effect. The story’s typicality is its ultimate sadness, as well as its ultimate reason for being, but typical is still typical, which is marginalizing. Phoenix gives one of his best performances in I’m Still Here, but you still can’t help but look forward to more conventional future assignments. The picture is admirable but, unfortunately, futile.
It's a mock-doc, which means that the picture is shaky, blurry, distorted, and deliberately ugly—with a few clearly composed images to disrupt the vérité. The DVD faithfully preserves I'm Still Here, but it isn't the sort of picture that inspires spirited praises of image and sound.
The commentaries are occasionally amusing, but they don't add much. Ditto the deleted scenes and alternate ending outtakes. The conversations with Jerry Penacoli are obviously meant to telegraph one overriding point: We didn't mean it! Please let us work again! Penacoli, however, is an engaging presence, and the interviews are fine as self-promotional fluff goes. The most interesting extra is the audio conversation with Christine Spines, who briefly appears in the proper film. Spines, who comes off as a self-conscious, endangered bird in the picture, strikes one as particularly honest in her self-conflict and guilt; the ensuing talk is admirably frank in regards to the frustration, hypocrisy, and mutual-benefit of the media whore game. The extras are redundant in the tradition of DVD extras, but the principals here are more appealing than usual.
A pretty good representation of one of the year's most compelling go-for-it experiments.