I’m Still Here is the title of the Joaquin Phoenix documentary opening this weekend. I’m Still Here is also the title of another film – one Joaquin helped narrate along with several other movie stars in 2005. The rest of that movie’s title? Real Diaries of Young People Who Lived During the Holocaust.
So why would Joaquin choose to call a project about himself, one that centers on his own hideous emotional breakdown, the same thing as a serious-minded film about kids victimized by the Holocaust? That might be the most interesting question the documentary brings up, and one that we wanted answered when we arrived at a preview screening of I’m Still Here in New York last night.
Overall, the film feels like a documentary about a mockumentary. Director Casey Affleck (Joaquin’s brother-in-law) follows Joaquin as he announces his decision to leave the acting biz and become a musician — a rapper, to be exact. All of this was well-publicized in 2008, when it happened. The film includes performance clips that the Internet gave us ages ago and devotes much time to Joaquin’s infamous Letterman appearance. The one that caused the world to ask: “Um. Is this a giant hoax?”
At the time, one of Joaquin’s friends told a reporter that he’d said, “I’m going to pretend to have a meltdown and Casey’s going to film it.” A long portion of the film is devoted to figuring out which member of Joaquin’s inner circle took that quote to the press. It’s a childish statement straight from a late-night bong session — something most people would forget by morning (or mid-afternoon, when they wake up with a headache and still in yesterday’s jeans).
But Casey and Joaquin are not most people! They are grandiosely self-indulgent. Joaquin first announced his decision to quit the biz at a tribute event for Paul Newman, who had recently died. And whom do the boys head straight for when they need someone to produce JP’s rap album? Diddy — who is not the least bit amused.
Are we to doubt that somewhere along the line Joaquin did feel legitimately inclined to quit acting? Certainly not. The impulse does feel honest, and the method organic to that impulse. And it seems that at some point during his bizarre experiment, Joaquin did actually start to inhabit shades of his character. But the persona he created is ultimately too close to the truth to be effective satire and too self-conscious to be taken seriously. Plus, the persona is nightmarish: bearded, bloated, emotionally abusive and grotesque in every way — an Andy Kaufman just doing it for the chicks. Sometimes Joaquin does appear to be acting and sometimes he’s merely exploding unadulterated id. Throwing tantrums and straddling coked-up prostitutes. What’s brave about that?
So what’s real and what isn’t? Well, that’s only a worthwhile question if pondering it actually leads to some sort of enlightenment. Otherwise we’re simply playing a game of theatrical Sudoku, having our time wasted on our own dime. Joaquin and Casey ultimately fail by being arrogant enough to assume people will care about their charade. And people did care, at first, but not for nearly long enough to sustain the project. We were interested then we moved on — and now we’re left with the scraps of some gesture that isn’t nearly as profound as the filmmakers assumed it would be.
At its core, I’m Still Here is a portrait of two people so utterly bored with life that they can’t even see how irrelevant they’re being. And that’s where the true parody of the film lies. The Hollywood Beast has trapped Casey and Joaquin after all – not the other way around. The far more interesting story is what happens next. How Joaquin (recently photographed back at fighting weight, in a suit and clean-shaven) handles the shitstorm he brought down upon his own image after a hoax gone too far.