The thought of watching such an intimate documentary about the two-time Oscar nominee descending into a drug and alcohol-fueled abyss as he gives up acting and pursues a music career as a rapper sounded like 105 minutes of pure hell. And given that I’m Still Here is directed, produced and filmed by Casey Affleck—who is married to Phoenix’s sister—it also sounded like voyeurism at its cruelest. Hey everybody, come watch my delusional brother-in-law battle his personal demons and destroy his career while I do nothing to intervene!
But then last Friday happened, and Affleck admitted in an interview with The New York Times what many had suspected all along: The whole thing was a lengthy, intricate hoax—performance art by Phoenix on a grand scale. “It’s a terrific performance, the performance of his career,” Affleck told the paper.
So it was with that little bit of information that I viewed I’m Still Here, and while knowledge may be power, the film still sounded like a train wreck of an idea. The concept is far from your normal Christopher Guest mockumentary formula. This is a man who dedicated two years of his life to a performance in which only a very select few were in on the joke.
I’m Still Here is indeed the strangest mockumentary I’ve ever seen, but, surprisingly, also one of the most enthralling. It’s as captivating as it is awkward, and as painful as it is funny. Imagine The Blair Witch Project crossed with Borat and you have a general idea of what you’re in for. It’s been more than a decade since Blair Witch generated such massive buzz with the “is it real or not” marketing campaign, and with a similar shaky camera, fuzzy picture and low-tech style, I’m Still Here offers its audience a number of similar questions regarding authenticity. Is Phoenix really snorting cocaine? Are those really prostitutes? Is Letterman in on the joke? Is Diddy in on the joke? (My most educated guesses, by the way, are: yes, probably, possibly and—most hilariously—no.)
The Borat comparisons are equally apt, but just imagine if Sacha Baron Cohen had stayed in character for two years. Because that’s what we get with Phoenix, whom we begin following in late 2008 when he announces to the world that the recently completed Two Lovers will be his last film, and he will henceforth be pursuing a career in hip hop.
Those closest to Phoenix are inclined, with good reason, to think that it’s all one big joke. Even longtime assistants and others in Phoenix’s inner circle do not appear to be in on the hoax, and most view his new behavior as a parent would deal with a teenager going through a phase. But JP, as he likes to refer to himself, is persistent. As the weeks turn into months, his hair and beard grow long and gnarly, he gains weight, chain smokes, does drugs and spends much of his day writing and recording ridiculous music. He sure knows how to act like a petulant rock star, even if he’s far from one.
Like Borat, the best parts of I’m Still Here involve interactions with unsuspecting people in positions of power and/or fame. It’s painful to see the anguish on the face of Phoenix’s longtime agents and managers as they try to make sense of the situation and organize a Two Lovers publicity junket for their client. And, yet, it’s equally funny to watch rap mogul Diddy squirm while listening to Phoenix pitch—and ultimately perform—songs from his atrocious demo album. There is a wonderful scene involving Ben Stiller pitching a film role to Phoenix in which we learn once and for all that Stiller is the same neurotic, insecure person as all his movie characters.
There are subtle signs throughout that it all indeed may be a hoax. The aftermath and backstage footage following the Letterman interview feel a bit too scripted, and when Phoenix jumps out of the limousine on the way home to go cry in the woods, Affleck is practically begging the audience to cry BS That the film never totally implodes under the weight of its lie may be a credit to Phoenix, who plays crazy very, very well.
Just how well we may find out this week—by the time you read this, Phoenix will have reappeared with Letterman. Will the clean-shaven, brilliant actor of yesteryear show up, or will it be a repeat performance by the crazed alter ego? All I really want to know is whether his brother-in-law will be behind the curtain, camera still rolling.
I’m Still Here continues at the Wilma Theatre.