I’m a little stymied about where to start with this movie. Because it’s not just a movie, it is or was something of a cultural event, or at least a pop-culture event (but that’s pretty much what goes in place of culture these days anyways). Many have referred to this event as a “hoax” but I’m reluctant to call it that after director Casey Affleck said to the New York Times, "I never intended to trick anybody, the idea of a quote, hoax, unquote, never entered my mind." I think it can only objectively be referred to as a performance.
Here’s what happened. Two years before the release of the film, Joaquin Phoenix comes out to the media that he’s quitting acting to start a music career. Here and there over two years he makes more media appearances, growing a bushy and unkempt beard and wearing dark glasses. He becomes a rapper and performs, but his performances go badly and aren’t well received. He goes on Letterman and is quiet and nervous, and letterman mocks him for it and for his appearance, while the crowd laughs and laughs, seeming to assume it’s all a joke. Then the movie I’m Still Here comes out, chronicling all of this while showing the story of what the man was going through in between. Mainly, struggling to have his mediocre rap talent taken seriously while going through a breakdown and eventually failing at music completely, all while engaging in scandalous behavior including snorting coke, sleeping with prostitutes, and verbally abusing his friends (though he gets pooped on for the latter).
Then the kicker of the whole thing is Casey comes out to tell everyone none of it was real, the public appearances were done for the film and the film was entirely (or at least mostly) fictional. Now, it is hard for me to believe that Joaquin and Casey Affleck weren’t aware they were playing a trick on everyone, of course they knew what they were doing. But it’s not just some hoax, they weren’t telling us that Aliens are coming to take over the planet or something silly like that. First of all, they really did do it for the film. Second, the film is a commentary on Hollywood and media culture and what it does to a person. In the same way that many works of performance art seek to make the audience a part of the performance, Affleck’s film made the American public and media culture part of the performance.
So that’s why I’m not sure how to tackle the film, because there is the film itself, and then there is the media response which is an important part of the film’s text. I actually feel the media response is probably the most important part. You might think the two could be separated, but they cannot because the film works his public appearances and the reactions to them into the film itself. In fact all his public appearances are pivotal turning points in his character development. There is a very effective scene where there is a collage of videos from television and the internet of people mocking Joaquin’s decision to quit acting and his demeanor and appearance, which all seem to be real, including a performance put on by Ben Stiller parodying the actor for the 81st Academy Awards ceremony. I’m Still Here didn't win any academy awards, but considering it was criticizing Hollywood culture for how cruelly it could turn on a celebrity who didn't play by the rules, I think that the fact that it was mocked by the academy awards is a much bigger testament to it’s success.
The film is really less about Joaquin’s (I’m referring to Joaquin as the character in the film and not Joaquin the actor. From here on I’ll refer to the actor by his last name and the character by his first name to avoid that confusion.) bad behavior than the culture that has effectively decayed his moral fiber and mental fortitude to that point. He starts off a broken man, it’s the reason he quits acting in the first place. He feels he can no longer be himself, he’s always playing the role of “Joaquin Phoenix” demanded by his studio and agent and his fans, more of a brand name than a real person. That’s especially interesting considering that Pheonix is acting this whole time, and the media piles on to exploit the destruction of the character he’s playing for them without realizing it’s not who he really is. But Phoenix and Affleck roll with it and the media’s cruelty continues to be the mechanism for Joaquin’s breakdown throughout the movie.
But the point is he’s already snorting coke and sleeping with prostitutes at the beginning of the film. It’s not because he’s having a breakdown, it’s a part of the unglamorous side of Hollywood culture that we usually aren't given such a bleak view of. It’s part of the culture he’s unsuccessfully trying to escape, without realizing how much it’s already changed and corrupted him, that it’s lingering influence is the force behind his self-destructive spiral. The audience is implicated in this culture as well. We can’t help but notice and be shocked by how much weight he’s put on and… how much beard he has (gasp). Even Letterman is so superficial that when Joaquin comes on the show for an interview he can only mock his beard and make reference to the uni-bomber, as if only bad people had beards (Jesus Christ and Abe Lincoln are nothing in comparison to the significance of the uni-bomber, after all, right?). When Joaquin makes his rap debut and gets mocked by a member of the audience (most probably scripted) to the point he jumps off stage and attacks the heckler, all the pretty girls and boys quickly flock around him to try to get a picture of the photo op on their cell phone cameras so they can show off to their friends, and I’m afraid their reaction might have been very unscripted and genuine. Which goes to show that we circle like vultures just as much as the news cameras do.
At first there were two main negative reactions to the film from critics. Those who were completely taken by the film and thought it was real, and who are therefore probably pissed off now that they find out they were tricked and made to look like the fools they probably are after ranting about how disgusting Joaquin’s behavior is and completely missing the whole media commentary angle that they obliviously became a part of. And those who (so they say at least) knew it was a hoax all along but are disappointed by the punch-line, which is just a shamefully inept movie about the usual Hollywood bad behavior after all, right? For all those of you who didn't fit into those two camps, good for you, for those that did, you've completely missed the point. I can’t blame the former entirely because they took the movie to be real, but let’s look at one reviewer’s response for a moment so I can explain how off base it is.
“All of this is true.” said Roger Ebert in his review of the film. In other words, he bought it hook line and sinker. Like I said, I don’t blame him for that, but credit should still be given where credit is due. He continues, “At least we must assume it is. If this film turns out to still be part of an elaborate hoax, I'm going to be seriously pissed. Actually, there are subtle signs it might be.” Okay, so to his credit he was a little skeptical, but I hope when he says he will be pissed, I hope he’s only pissed off at himself for not realizing the greater implications of the piece. Seriously Mr Ebert, a performance is so convincing that it has you believing it is reality, and you’re going to get mad about it? You as a film critic of all people should be able to appreciate what a rare and astounding feat Phoenix and Affleck have pulled off.
Just by the fact alone that such a renowned film critic believed the act should be proof that Phoenix’s performance is no less than one of the greatest feats of character acting of all time. Hell, he was in character whenever he was in public for two years. Two years. Even knowing the movie wasn't true before I watched it, I kept feeling convinced that I was watching something real, and I had to keep reminding myself it wasn't a real documentary. On top of that Casey Affleck went broke financing the film out of his own pocket. After all that they bomb in the box office and critics throw around a lot of bad reviews. Well, now that everyone should know that the whole thing was fiction, I’m going to give them all one chance to look back and realize that the whole performance, including the film and the media appearances and the responses they provoked that became a part of the performance, is really a modern masterpiece. If they can’t do that they really have their heads up their asses. Though I guess we should already have figured that out about our Hollywood pop-media culture.