Sometimes you can tell when an audience is preparing to grant a movie permission to be bad. At a recent critics’ screening of I’m Still Here—the wink-wink “documentary” from Casey Affleck that chronicles Joaquin Phoenix’s “retirement” from acting, subsequent Letterman meltdown, and further efforts to rap poorly for as many suckers as can be assembled—much of the anticipated chatter came down to people asking each other, “So is this all bulls--t or what?” This question was the cause of much merriment, which also made it feel as though the fix was in. Celebrities! Is there anything they can produce that isn’t fascinating to us because they made it?
If you can get talk like this going before the first reel has been spooled, you’ve won the PR battle, since it means people have forgotten all films are bogus propositions. Even documentaries (what with the act of observing changing reality, and all). The very romance of going to the movies involves the viewer asking to be lied to. So the most impressive aspect of Casey and Joaquin’s excellent adventure is they’ve obscured the commonplace nature of that stuff. The possibility of being deceived takes on a frisson of novelty. And who knows, perhaps their project could still make a hot graduate-school term paper. But it’s a terrible flick, since it neglects the second part of the dissembling contract between viewer and moviemaking person, which goes: tell me a good lie, please.
I’m Still Here doesn’t have any bitchin’ falsehoods up its sleeve, despite its being a doggedly disguised sort of performance. (In case you’re wondering: yes, some major part of this project is an act. Few up-and-up docs give their main subject a “co-writing” nod during the end credits, after all.) Phoenix is believable as a wayward celebrity, though his pitch-perfect fictional notes are all snores instead of hoots. He inhales cocaine (maybe even truly!), berates his (maybe not real) assistants with inscrutable harangues, taunts earnest journalists (including then-NEWSWEEK writer Ramin Setoodeh) and invites over the prostitutes he looks up on the Internet. His beard is homeless-grade, while his man-boobs and gut are funny-flabby. This isn’t only a movie that’s absorbed Dont Look Back, the D. A. Pennebaker–directed Bob Dylan documentary. It’s one that also looks up to Todd Haynes’s postmodern redigestion of the Dylan-as-unknowable-artist myth, I’m Not There (title sound familiar?).
And yet, from beginning to end, the particular lies I’m Still Here hopes to enchant us with—about the perspective-skewing downside of fame, or about the public’s hunger to watch celebrities become confused and disoriented to the point where they fail onstage—have the scuffed-up dullness of the familiar about them. This is despite the fact that many if not most of the details may have been fabricated. As such, the only mysteries here involve craft. When you watch a supposedly long-suffering assistant of Phoenix’s take a midnight dump on the actor (shot through a conveniently shadowy night-vision lens), all you’re doing is wondering, “Hmm, I wonder if that was really feces.”
The problem isn’t that this is gross, but that every bit of I’m Still Here recalls smarter, dirtier provocations. In the “assistant fighting with his boss during a maybe fictional scene” category, there’s the classic bit where Rip Torn surprises Norman Mailer by nailing him square on the head with a hammer during Maidstone. In fact, an awful lot of I’m Still Here recalls Maidstone—including the “famous artist quitting his day job” trope. (Also: the part about it being a frequently boring viewing experience.) And while the Jackass guys commit their bodies to the cause of harm, we never see Phoenix take a punch when he scuffles. (He doesn’t even do much with those pixillated-face hookers.) When it comes to courage, the reigning champ of this gonzo fact/fiction blend, Sacha Baron Cohen, is willing to offend the celebrities (or near-celebrities) he ensnares in his pranks. But in I’m Still Here, Ben Stiller and Diddy—the two highest-profile marks—receive a “very special thanks” during the credits, while the Miami clubgoers we’re invited to tsk-tsk for gawking at Phoenix’s purposely terrible rap show just get implicated as camera-phone-flashing lemmings. I mean, making fun of the hoi polloi’s hunger for the gossip you’re contriving is cool, but you wouldn’t want to offend anyone important, would you? Everybody’s still chill with this in Hollywood, right? What a suck-up industry rebel Phoenix turned out to be.
Regardless of when he was let in on the joke, Diddy winds up being the most interesting character. (Letterman, in his talk-show segment—shown here in what looks like its entirety—is a close second.) After allowing Phoenix to waste time in his recording studio, the illustrious hip-hop producer asks the erstwhile actor: Why rap? Even if you want to quit the movies and become a musician, why have you chosen this particular form? This is a sharp question that deserves—but never gets—an answer. Sure, Phoenix’s work on the mike is every bit as bad as you’d imagine the genre of masturbatory mumblecore could be. But it isn’t merely awful, as in “dude’s got no flow.” It’s also excruciating on the level of cramped racial stereotyping, as in “hasn’t the assumed lack of hip-hop aptitude among non-African-Americans become a pretty tired joke by now?”
The climactic performance in Miami goes so badly that Phoenix repairs to the bathroom in order to throw up. A lot. But the fluids—which are nasty-looking indeed—appear to be sluiced down from a container neatly out of frame rather than blown all over with the violence of an actual person’s illness. This turns out to be a good way to think of the entire movie: like stored vomit poured with patience, it has neither the anarchic spray of the real thing, nor the grace afforded by poetic portrayals of the sick.