If the late and proudly reprobate Charles Bukowski had written about movie stars instead of down-and-out drunks, he might have created Joaquin Phoenix. Drugged, dissolute and looking as awful as any one can look on the sunny side of the dirt, Phoenix is the subject of I'm Still Here, Casey Affleck's "documentary" about a year in the life of a movie star who suddenly announced that he had abandoned acting to take up rapping.
The events following Phoenix's departure from Hollywood are chronicled in Affleck's movie, which some regard as a hoax on a par, say, with faking a decision to walk away from a lucrative and apparently rewarding acting career. It's possible - some even say likely - that I'm Still Here is an elaborate goof, a sneering reminder that we shouldn't presume to know anything about actors based on what we see of them on film.
Know this, though: It's hardly unusual for parts of documentaries to be staged. Even the most devoted of filmmakers can't be everywhere at once. The recreation of an important moment doesn't necessarily invalidate the truth of a documentary. Affleck, who appeared with the film at the Venice Film Festival, has denied that the movie is a hoax, an obligatory stance on his part whether the movie is truthful or not.
If I'm Still Here is all illusion, it's a well-created one. Affleck adopts a convincingly sloppy hand-held style that emphasizes fly-on-the-wall eavesdropping. He includes embarrassing footage of Phoenix that found its way onto You Tube, and, of course, he makes room for Phoenix's now legendary 2008 appearance on the Late Show With David Letterman. Phoenix showed up to promote Two Lovers - his supposed last movie - and wound up looking like an escapee from a mental institution: bearded, bedraggled and, dare we say, tormented by unseen demons.
"I'm sorry you couldn't be here tonight," concluded Letterman. A distraught Phoenix looked as if he'd just been waterboarded.
A plot line of sorts runs through I'm Still Here. Once he declares his rapping intentions, Phoenix tries to obtain an audience with Sean "Diddy" Combs. He ultimately meets Combs. Nothing seems to come of it. Combs doesn't blow him off, but he's not interested in paving Phoenix's way to hip-hop stardom, either.
So what about Phoenix's rapping abilities?
Let's say he's hardly on a par with any hip-hop heavyweights. This lack of ability either supports the idea that I'm Still Here is an elaborate joke or informs us that Phoenix is even more deluded than we think. He says he's sick of interpreting material others have written. Mostly, he's sick of playing the character called Joaquin Phoenix, a state of discontent that isn't likely to earn him much sympathy.
Say again? You're tired of being rich, famous and of having the opportunity to do highly creative work that has earned you two Oscar nominations and a ton of audience and critical acclaim in movies such as Gladiator and Walk the Line? How unfortunate.
Whatever else I'm Still Here might be, it's definitely not an exercise in image building.
During the course of the movie, Phoenix behaves like a man anxious to drive nails into his own coffin. He snorts coke, hires call girls and belittles his associates. He often rants incoherently. For all the world, he looks as if he's coming apart at the seams as he pursues a career that marks as ridiculous a leap as any he might have taken in assuming the identity of a fictional character. I'm Still Here is a vanity project thrown into reverse, its gears grinding loudly.
So what evidence supports the idea that the film is a fake? The fact that Affleck is Phoenix's brother-in-law makes it difficult to believe he'd allow Joaquin to appear this way. An end credit announcing that Phoenix and Affleck co-wrote the film raises additional questions. Affleck's directorial style -- lighting so dim you sometimes find yourself straining to see through the mush - makes you wonder if he's not pushing the gritty authenticity a little too hard.
An even better question: Should you spend money on a film that may or may not be real? Tough call. I'd say that I'm Still Here has roughly the same appeal as the proverbial car wreck you can't turn away from, and it ultimately raises questions about our ability to distinguish between reality and image - whether that image is of a talented, complex and ultra-intense Oscar nominee or an artist who looks as if he's on the verge of losing his mind.
Affleck makes us share in Phoenix's apparent descent. And, yes, I lean toward thinking that there's some core of ugly truth here, as well as a disturbing question: Joke or not, who in his right mind would want to present himself to the world this way?