I always liked Joaquin Phoenix as an actor, so when news broke a few years ago that he was quitting acting I was quite surprised, even saddened. But since the news was followed by statements that he will transition in to a hip-hop career and that this transition will be documented by his friend and brother in law Casey Affleck the whole thing started to look like a publicity stunt of some sort. Really? A 30-something actor at his prime is going in to hip-hop of all things? Hard to believe, but both Phoenix and Affleck stressed it was no hoax.
Now we all know it was indeed fake and the film that came out of this, “I’m Still Here”, pretty much crumbled under the more sensationalist aspects of the whole ordeal. It was met with mixed reviews, and most of them were more concerned with whether or not it was a hoax than the film itself. In other words they focused on the least interesting aspect of the film if you ask me. But many critics believed it was no hoax, including the great Roger Ebert who totally bought in to the idea that Phoenix was done with acting.
And this is the testament to the sheer talent and dedication of Joaquin Phoenix as an actor. Once we remove all the baggage the film comes with, what remains is one of the most astonishing feats of modern acting. The fact that it was done completely in the public’s eye with immense media coverage and despite consistent doubts that it was all an act, and still pulled through to execution without any of the onlookers being all the wiser is nothing short of amazing.
Joaquin Phoenix’s transformation of course starts with the obvious, which is his visual appearance. And he really let himself go, he grew a beard and long hair, and gained quite a few pounds. Now I don’t know how he is in his private life but I am sure that he is not this vicious hobo Phoenix that is found in “I’m Still Here”. Still, he remains a complicated personality, and it is quite clear that there is a real empathetic person underneath the beard and sunglasses that is still very much Joaquin Phoenix. It makes his performance a real reality bender and more often than not it is very hard to say what is the act and what is the real persona coming through.
This is of course aided by the “documentary” framing of the film, but it is the dedication of Phoenix that comes through as the film’s strongest suit. He openly humiliates himself on stage in front of hundreds of people with his rapping and arguing with hecklers. And it was clearly a hard thing to pull off and it is evident in the film itself, like in the scene after one miserable performance where he rushes to the toilet and vomits. That is no act and the anxiety surrounding scenes like this is more than palpable.
And if “I’m Still Here” tells us anything about the real Joaquin Phoenix then it is that he is a very anxious individual, and this is more than evident in his performance. But he obviously seems to relish in this anxiousness as well and challenging it seems to be very much a part of his process as an actor. So in that sense this is very much his Mount Everest since the media and public attention he got while making this film is probably the biggest of his career.
But then again it would have never worked without this media coverage. And another great feat that Affleck and Phoenix have pulled with this film is the way they roped in the media and made it work for their cause. Of course this media exposure eventually turned very vicious towards Phoenix, which must have made the shooting of “I’m Still Here” a great ordeal for him.
Beyond this amazing performance the film doesn’t have too much to offer unfortunately. Yes it does explore the concept of celebrity in our times, but it’s more an observation of the phenomenon than a comment on it. However there are quite a few funny and outrageous moments that make it a pleasant watch, but it’s all about “J.P.” and the actor behind the sunglasses. Even the end scene which is supposed to be cathartic felt rushed and flat for me, although it does get the point across that this restless mind has finally found tranquility.
“I’m Still Here” is still an exceptional experiment in acting, and for me it solidifies Joaquin Phoenix as one of the greatest talents in the business. His performance is so brave and unhinged that it boggles the mind, and the fact that it went so criminally underappreciated is very disappointing. Hopefully more people will return to this film and recognize the brilliance at its center.
Joaquin "J.P." Phoenix
Sean "P. Diddy" Combs
I'm Still Here on IMDb