When Joaquin Phoenix announced nearly two years ago that he was permanently ditching the movies and launching a new career as a hip-hop artist, a number of people speculated that it was an elaborate hoax—especially when it emerged that his brother-in-law, Casey Affleck, was documenting this career transition for a proposed documentary. After Phoenix’s much-publicized meltdown on The Late Show With David Letterman, however, that theory seemed a bit less plausible. Would an actor of his stature really torch his reputation just for the sake of some Andy Kaufman-esque attempt at celebrity performance art? Would he gain 40 pounds, grow a Grizzly Adams beard and publicly humiliate himself for two years as a postmodern prank?
Amazingly, Affleck’s “documentary,” I’m Still Here, reveals that the answer is yes. While both director and star have thus far refused to comment, the closing credits confirm that hefty portions of this alleged fly-on-the-wall document were deliberately staged. We’ve been punk’d. But like many of Kaufman’s stunts (e.g., reading entire chapters of The Great Gatsby to stand-up comedy audiences), I’m Still Here is more fun to hear about than to actually experience. Affleck and Phoenix apparently meant to skewer movie-star narcissism, but their commitment to verisimilitude means that Phoenix’s misbehavior—unlike, say, Borat’s—is rarely funny or outrageous. You’re just watching a famous dude repeatedly be a tool, which gets monotonous in a hurry. Nor does the movie offer much insight into the warped mindset of the entitled, unless you were previously unaware that money and power can corrupt. One can’t help but admire Phoenix’s fortitude, but it’s hard to come away from this project feeling as if it was the best possible use of his time.