Movie review: ‘I’m Still Here’

We live in strange times. Despite the dominance of supposed reality shows on television and a resurgence of documentaries in theaters, it’s become harder and harder to tell what’s actually real and what’s been augmented, massaged or just plain made up. “I’m Still Here” is going to add fuel to that fire.

Directed by Casey Affleck and featuring his brother-in-law Joaquin Phoenix, “I’m Still Here” is being presented as a documentary, “a striking portrayal of a tumultuous year” that included Phoenix’s celebrated appearance, full-bearded and minimally coherent, before a caustic David Letterman — an appearance that became such an immediate popular culture staple it was mocked by Ben Stiller on the Oscar telecast a few weeks later.

As shown here, Phoenix in the months leading up to that meltdown — a time when the two-time Oscar nominee insisted he was leaving acting to begin a career in hip-hop music — was very much a man in crisis. Grotesquely overweight, inevitably slovenly and frequently stoned, this Phoenix is a walking nervous breakdown, a deeply troubled lost soul whose life would be a sad and horrifying cautionary tale if all this were true. The question is, is it?

Though “I’m Still Here” can be persuasive, by the time it’s over the feeling is inescapable that to one degree or another what we’ve been watching is a convincing hoax, a glum and dispiriting counterfeit of reality that turns out to be much more interesting to speculate about than to actually watch.

What’s most interesting about this film is that it succeeds as well as it does in fooling us because it plays so adroitly to our preconceptions about behind-the-scenes star behavior. The drug use, the sexual escapades, the assistants who enable, the all-around bad behavior, they could conceivably be true but they are too neatly stacked in a row, too close to confirming every clichéd prejudice, to be totally creditable.

In fact, it’s possible to posit a scenario where Phoenix, perhaps genuinely interested in taking some time away from acting, realized that this break was an opportunity to pull off what he and Affleck saw as a formidable conceptual art project, a performance piece that lasted for months.

This would be a performance piece with the additional advantage of having some fun and games at the expense of the voracious celebrity media industry that likely has been the bane of both men’s existence. How better to metaphorically stick a finger in the eye of the media than entice them to feast on bogus celebrity misadventures. If this is what you want to see, guys, knock yourselves out.

The first thing audiences see, after home movie footage of a young boy, presumably Joaquin, jumping into a lake, is a clip of all five Phoenix kids performing for all they are worth. Clearly, this was not your average childhood, so it’s not a complete surprise to meet Our Hero, wearing a hoodie and sounding like Marlon Brando as he looks out over the lights of Hollywood and says he doesn’t want to be a puppet anymore. “Hate me or like me,” he says, “just don’t misunderstand me.”

After Phoenix announces his retirement to a shocked media in San Francisco, things go from bad to worse for him in a major way. Intent on a career in hip-hop, he demonstrates more desire than talent at a local club called Carbon but, nothing deterred, he has his team of assistants try and get him a meeting with Sean “Diddy” Combs to talk about producing a record.

That quest for a get-together turns into a comedy of errors as Phoenix, referred to as “J.P.” by his team, spends so much time whining, abusing his assistants, taking drugs and consorting with loose women that he has trouble attending to the more mundane details of life. Like getting places on time.

Aside from that, Phoenix takes meetings with Stiller, who wants him to consider a role in “Greenberg,” and Edward James Olmos, who makes free with spiritual advice. He also spends some time getting upset at persistent media reports that this project is a hoax. That part of “I’m Still Here,” not surprisingly, has a particularly surreal feeling to it.

Fake or not, “I’m Still Here” is no fun to watch, and in fact Phoenix’s situation comes off as so dire that it becomes a reason to doubt the film’s authenticity. Filming someone having a mental breakdown is embarrassing and exploitative at best, and the notion that director Affleck would take advantage of his own brother-in-law this way doesn’t hold water, even in Hollywood.

More than that, the film’s closing credits, which go by very fast, offer other clues. “I’m Still Here” ends with a burned-out Phoenix going to Panama to visit his father, but those credits thank folks for help shooting in Hawaii and name Tim Affleck, the director’s father, as the actor playing the senior Phoenix. Not exactly a rousing documentary endorsement.

In the end, of course, there is no way to know for sure what is true and what is not in “I’m Still Here” and maybe that was the point all long. That’s what happens when reality is a perception to be manipulated and truth is a malleable concept. As noted, we live in strange times.