I’m Still Here (shmocumentary)

Coincidentally, I saw “I’m Still Here” the night before it became official public knowledge that Joaquin Phoenix’s behavior in the film was an act. Nearly everyone suspected as much, but Casey Affleck, the film’s director (and Phoenix’s brother-in-law), had deflected questions about it for months until finally coming clean to The New York Times. And they say investigative journalism is dying!

Normally you’d argue that external factors shouldn’t have any bearing on your opinion of a movie. But “I’m Still Here” is all about external factors. In the film — supposedly an unstaged documentary — Joaquin Phoenix quits the acting business to pursue a hip-hop career, which he believes will let him be more honest, less phony. He grows a crazy-man beard, does a lot of drugs, consorts with prostitutes, acts like a space cadet on Letterman. All of this played out in public in 2008 and 2009, with people constantly wondering whether it was for real or all an act. The movie shows Phoenix getting upset at the suggestion he’s anything less than sincere about becoming a rap artist.

As I watched the film, suspecting it was a put-on but willing to believe it was legit, I arrived at this conclusion: Either way, the movie doesn’t work. If it’s truly a document of Phoenix’s actual behavior, it’s horrific, and Affleck is a loathsome exploiter for showing it. If it’s real, it shows a man falling apart at the seams, running headlong into insanity and self-destruction. If it’s real, we shouldn’t be watching it.

And if it’s all an act, some kind of meta-commentary on celebrity and public life? In that case, it’s just boring. Phoenix’s antics are amusing for a while, but without knowing what we’re watching, it’s hard to know how we’re supposed to react to it. It plays out like a parody that doesn’t want you to know it’s a parody, which limits its potential impact.

Now that we know it’s a performance, though, we can appreciate what an astonishing performance it is. Has anyone ever been so committed to a role? Phoenix didn’t just act like this in front of Affleck’s cameras. He played the part every time he went out in public for 18 months. Presumably his closest associates were in on it, but the rest of the world wasn’t. It takes some serious nerve to let people think the imbecile you’re portraying is actually you.

But now we have to ask: Why? Phoenix and Affleck perpetrated this prank for a couple years, and sure enough, they fooled a lot of people. To what end, though? Is the joke on us for being deceived? Is the joke on Hollywood for being so vapid that we’d believe this was a real depiction of a celebrity meltdown? Is there a joke at all? Or is this just a thing that rich people do when they’re bored?

C (1 hr., 48 min.; R, nonstop harsh profanity, a lot of nudity, some strong sexuality.)