A record of arguably the longest, most publicly prominent piece of performance art ever, “I’m Still Here” finally addresses the question of whether Joaquin Phoenix’s decision to give up acting to pursue a hip-hop career was on the level or a setup. The answer seems to be: a bit of both. Result is an utterly fascinating experiment that apparently blends real and faked material to examine notions of celebrity, mental stability and friendship. Whatever auds may think of Phoenix, there’s no doubting his chutzpah, though biz will depend on the level of voyeuristic interest in his and helmer Casey Affleck’s strange, postmodern psychodrama.
“I’m Still Here” is skedded to open Sept. 10 in North America, after its premieres in Venice and Toronto, and then rolls out in Blighty and Oz a week later. Its B.O. fortunes will rely on exactly how much audience curiosity remains in Phoenix’s widely reported story, and how long he and Affleck can keep the genie in the bottle with regard to the film’s essential mystery. At the Venice press conference, Affleck sat solo on the podium and deftly swatted away direct queries about the film’s ontological status; when asked how he would answer questions about what’s real and what’s not, his succinct one-word answer was: “Elliptically.” (For the record, he also said he and Phoenix only took credit as the film’s writers because of guild rules.)
That sounds pretty much like an admission that not all is as it seems. This is borne out by the end credits, which list multiple talents credited as themselves (Phoenix and Affleck, obviously, but also Sean Combs and Ben Stiller, among others), as well as several key people who have names other than what they’ve been called onscreen. The most important example would be the character known sometimes as “Anton” and sometimes as “Anthony,” who’s presented throughout as Phoenix’s assistant, but who is credited not as “himself” but as Antony Langdon, a little-known thesp whose previous film appearances include a small role in Todd Haynes’ “Velvet Goldmine” (another film about fame and the intermingling of fact and fiction).
In terms of narrative, pic chronologically follows what happened from around the time in 2008 when Phoenix announced that “Two Lovers” would be his last acting role and that, from that point onward, he intended to be a rapper. Through a blend of archival footage from news reports, TV shows (such as his appearance on “The Late Show With David Letterman,” shown in its entirety), YouTube clips and more private material shot by Phoenix’s friend and brother-in-law, Affleck, the story unspools once Phoenix declares he “doesn’t want to play the character of Joaquin anymore.”
The rest is not quite history, not quite fiction, judging from evidence seen. Footage credited to Affleck and d.p. Magdalena Gorka, as well as a host of camera operators, shows what appears to be Phoenix falling gradually apart at the seams, gaining around 40 pounds, snorting coke and smoking numerous joints, and partying with hookers. After an infamously bad rap perf in a nightclub that provoked much is-he-for-real head-scratching when it emerged on the Web, Phoenix starts to pursue Combs, with much comic blundering, in the hopes that the hip-hop star will help him make a whole record. There’s also an encounter with Ben Stiller that, whether it was staged or not, puts Stiller’s Oscar-night spoof of Phoenix’s “Hasidic meth lab” look in a whole new light.
Meanwhile, when word gets out somehow that the whole act is a scam for Affleck’s movie, Phoenix begins to suspect Anton has betrayed him. This leads to an angry confrontation that culminates in a scene only a couple of shades less gross and funny than “Borat’s” naked wrestling match; indeed, “I’m Still Here” could be read as a more meta version of the filmmaking method deployed by Sacha Baron Cohen in “Borat” and “Bruno.”
Except that there might be something more tragic, troubling and weird going on here, with suggestions that what Phoenix went through is not unlike the experience of the protagonist in Sam Fuller’s 1963 feature “Shock Corridor.” By pretending to be crazy, Phoenix may actually have gone a little nuts by staying in character too long (Method gone completely mad), perhaps ruining or at least temporarily damaging his career in the process.
Auds won’t be able to stop themselves from wondering who was in on the joke (if it was a joke) and who wasn’t. Stiller and Combs feel like collaborators by the end — as does Phoenix’s publicist, Sue Patricola, who can’t suppress a tiny smile while she watches Phoenix on “The Late Show,” but what about Letterman himself? If Phoenix was in control and deliberately playing the space cadet when he appeared on the show, then it’s an amazing performance, perhaps his best yet; if not, it remains a stunning moment of self-immolation on live TV. Or maybe the truth is, there’s a real Phoenix and a self-constructed fictional one, and “I’m Still Here” is the part of the Venn diagram where they overlap.