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‘I’m Still Here’

Phoenix gambles his career for the ultimate hoax — or does he?

by Giovanni Fazio

You can do just about anything in Hollywood — stints in rehab, wife-beating, being arrested for lewd conduct, or drunk-driving topped off with a few anti-Semitic remarks, to name but a few — but the one thing they’ll never forgive you for is spurning stardom. Woe to those such as Mickey Rourke who called acting “women’s work” and walked away from a successful career to become a professional boxer; in Tinseltown, that’s not bad judgement, that’s scary crazy. Rourke would eventually find work again, but he’s never returned to his former glory.

Oscar-nominated actor Joaquin Phoenix (“Walk the Line”) seemed doomed to a similar fate when he announced in October 2008 that he was through with acting, and would instead launch a career as a rapper. Shortly after that, his caveman facial hair and erratic public behavior (including an infamous appearance on “Late Show with David Letterman”) led people to believe he was either having a mental breakdown or engaging in some twisted Andy Kaufman-esque performance art.

The latter speculation was fueled by the fact that Phoenix’s friend and brother-in-law Casey Affleck was making a documentary on this career suicide, which finally saw the light of day in 2010 as “I’m Still Here.” It opens belatedly in Japan this week, and plays rather like a real-life episode of “Entourage,” with Phoenix turning down a Ben Stiller script, trying to get Sean “Diddy” Combs to produce his debut hip-hop album, and whining about how Leonardo DiCaprio and Tobey Maguire got invited to the inauguration of President Barack Obama party and he didn’t.

Of course a lot of the fun with the film is trying to work out exactly how “real life” it was; viewers in 2012 may feel cheated, as Affleck has since admitted that the film — just like Phoenix’s breakdown — was a performance, and not a real documentary. And yet it’s a testament to how convincingly they constructed this faux-doc that the questions around it continue to swirl: One persistent theory has it that the film was not a hoax, that Phoenix really did lose the plot, and only after the film bombed at the box office and threatened to tank Phoenix’s career for good did they decide to disown it by calling it a hoax. There’s also the fact that Affleck was sued by two women, his cameraman and producer, for sexual harassment on the film set, with allegations that the cocaine-and-hooker party seen in the film was more than just staged for the camera.

My own take on it is that Phoenix is too good an actor to not know how bad his white-boy attempts at rapping are; you don’t nail Johnny Cash’s cadence and not know a thing or two about using your voice, which the dazed, deluded Phoenix in the film clearly doesn’t. You also don’t sit down with Diddy and tell him you want to make “the hip-hop ‘Bohemian Rhapsody.’ ” A bigger clue comes when Phoenix says early on, “I don’t want to play the character of Joaquin anymore,” which suggests that he will be playing another. I suspect, though, there is a bit of the “real” Phoenix in his rants about the straitjacket of celebrity and his desire to tackle new creative ground.

“I’m Still Here” is not without its problems: You could call it brave, but Phoenix’s decision to play himself as a not very likable boor — narcissistic, spoiled, dumping on his assistants (one of whom quite literally returns the favor), and using the word “dude” enough times to make even Seth Rogen wince — certainly thins out the potential audience. A bigger problem still is that the film’s antics never reach the sheer heights of absurdity that Charlie Sheen did with his for-real, nonstaged meltdown around the same period; real crazy beats fake crazy every time.

Affleck’s “documentary” style is clearly modeled on the confessional, self-obsessed and supposedly candid approach of reality TV, where the camera is used as a surrogate for the viewer, receiving what we feel are intimate moments. But Affleck’s point is to show us what a crock this is, how — like with a politician’s promises or a hostess’ flattery — we allow ourselves to be deceived by the medium.

In the end, when Phoenix looks into the camera and insists, “My purpose is to bring what’s inside me out. … All you can do is believe in yourself and put something out there,” I really have no clue whether he’s honestly saying what he feels, self-consciously commenting on his project, or mimicking the cliches of reality TV. This is an appealing ambiguity, but there was surely a better film to be made from this stunt had Affleck and his lead shown a bit more discipline.