It's Affleck week at the movies. With Ben Affleck's big-budget heist movie The Town flooding theaters, little brother Casey's directorial debut, I'm Still Here — a documentary portrait of actor Joaquin Phoenix's bizarre, self-imposed exile from the film business — slips onto a single screen.
No follower of celebrity gossip, I was barely aware that Phoenix had been missing. I vaguely remembered media reports that he wanted to pursue a hip-hop career and saw second-hand accounts of his awkward appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman. But Phoenix's last — final? — acting performance, in the indie Two Lovers, screened in Memphis just last year. And since I'm not at all a fan of Phoenix's two mannered Oscar-nominated performances — in Gladiator and Walk the Line — I wasn't particularly interested in his whereabouts.
This is one of the potential problems with I'm Still Here — an intimate, fly-on-the-wall portrait of Phoenix's descent into beard cultivation, snortable drugs, and slurred hip-hop. You may find yourself simultaneously drawn to some of the wild and funny things that happen on-screen while also wondering why you should care about Phoenix's apparent self-destructiveness.
Unless, of course, it's all an elaborate hoax. The film pushes back against this notion, including a testy filmed interview with an Entertainment Weekly editor after the magazine cited anonymous sources in reporting that Affleck and Phoenix were perpetrating a hoax. But there's also plenty of evidence to the contrary. For one thing, the closing credits list Affleck and Phoenix as co-writers. Beyond that, it's hard to imagine why Affleck, Phoenix's brother-in-law and longtime friend, would capture some of this material on camera — Phoenix snorting drugs, cavorting with prostitutes, vomiting backstage after a disastrous debut concert, having an anxiety attack after his Letterman appearance — if everything is completely real. Doing so seems too cruel to be credible.
Ultimately, I'm Still Here is either exploitation or gonzo satire on Hollywood hubris and celebrity lifestyle — taking the likes of Borat and Curb Your Enthusiasm to a new extreme. If it's the former, it's unnerving, engrossing, car-crash cinema — the worst thing that ever happened to Phoenix. If it's the latter, it's pretty easily the best thing he's ever done.
I'm Still Here
Opening Friday, September 17th