A good litmus test for how well you can tolerate the pretension of Casey Affleck’s mockumentary I’m Still Here, which follows Joaquin Phoenix over the course of a little over a year as he destroys his acting career, is its final scene. (Spoilers!) With his back to the camera, a bloated and now utterly defeated Phoenix wades through a spring near his family home in Miami. The scene in question is deliberately drawn out to the point of absurdity until Phoenix finally lowers his head below the water’s surface a minute or two later and disappears from view. This scene will either make you chuckle at how puckish Phoenix and Affleck are for knowingly pushing your buttons or it will make you rise to their bait and cause you to roll your eyes.
Watching the pseudo has-been drown himself for the camera is the pinnacle of the film’s huckster premise and probably its funniest gag. Phoenix, the star, has now thoroughly deconstructed himself and has nothing left to do but disappear knowing that if I’m Still Here is going to succeed, Phoenix and Affleck have to take its central joke of documenting Phoenix’s extended act of career suicide and run too far with it. Mission accomplished?
The crux of I’m Still Here is the same as the one central to most of Lars von Trier’s filmic pranks: How far can one mess with one’s audience while feigning sincerity? The very notion of an emotionally earnest depiction of Phoenix’s impromptu announcement of an indefinite departure from acting, the stillborn launch of his rap career, and his infamous subsequent meltdown on the Late Show with David Letterman is absurd. Phoenix and Affleck play out the film’s proudly self-indulgent premise with a lot of almost-convincing deadpan footage and performances, including several episodes featuring Phoenix losing his shit, toking up joints, and in general acting like the next big reality TV phenom (“JP is all of us,” he boasts drunkenly to a bemused club crowd).
Like von Trier, Affleck and Phoenix can’t help but tip their hand on a regular basis, just to prove their mastery over the formula-driven cinema of bleeding-heart, earnest melodrama to which Phoenix’s character arc conforms. For example: Phoenix the narcissist describes his need to rap as a way for him to “reveal” the real him. He tells this to the camera mock-confessionally while trying to trap a bird that’s wandered inside one of his many transient abodes. He finishes the speech just as he releases the bird back into the wild. Like the movie in general, this gag is a self-sufficient cliché, one that doesn’t need approval or rejection to work as either a stunt of a real cry for help.
The question of whether or not Phoenix is screwing with his audience should never really be in doubt for viewers who stay awake throughout I’m Still Here. By exploiting his image as a mysterious and simultaneously emotionally charged and sullen performer, Phoenix gleefully explodes his mystique simply because he can. A scene where he plays P. Diddy his horrid attempt at rap music is funny if only for the way the Bad Boy rap mogul recoils in horror a little more after each new track. But regardless of whether or not Puffy is playing along, that scene relies on the viewer’s willingness to accept at face value that being a celebrity means that poking fun of yourself is an inherently biting provocation instead of a monumental act of egotism.
The question then becomes whether or not Phoenix will have the guts to make like Andy Kaufman and continue to make a career out of this new dickish act. Kaufman is a memorable avant-garde comedian because almost all of his time in the limelight was spent putting a target on his back, as when he told personal friend and partner-in-crime Bob Zmuda that he wanted to be a villain in the worst way possible and publicly wrestled women to fulfill that masochistic imperative. If Phoenix wants to do anything more than look like a sycophantic enfant terrible, he better take after Kaufman and keep sneering at us for the foreseeable future. He’s a charming mess, but if he completely turns his back on I’m Still Here and admits it’s a gag, then the whole thing will have been not only dumb and unfunny, but also completely pointless.