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I'm Still Here

Much of the discussion regarding I'm Still Here, Casey Affleck's chronicle of his brother-in-law Joaquin Phoenix's abrupt retirement from film and subsequent attempt to reinvent himself as a rapper, has until now centered on whether or not the whole ordeal was a hoax. The answer, arriving shortly into the film's running time, is an emphatic yes. It's definitely a joke, and its punchline goes something like this: The only thing more pathetic than a bloated, slurring, entitled actor in the midst of a creative crisis is a person willing to spend two hours watching a ponderous, pointless documentary about said actor. The joke's on us; I suspect it always has been.

There isn't a real story arc to I'm Still Here, at least not one that I could recognize. Indeed, having a cohesive narrative would kind of defeat the purpose. Phoenix stumbles through the alternately humorous and bizarre film, by all indications a collection of scripted, semi-scripted, and entirely unscripted scenes, in a self-indulgent haze, drinking, abusing drugs, and ritually browbeating his assorted sycophants/enablers. When not embodying the stereotype of the pampered, infantile celebrity, he engages in his lone creative outlet: composing horrible hip-hop in his basement studio under his rapper nom de guerre J.P.

As a rapper, Phoenix is utterly talentless, but his well-cultivated artistic self-regard leads him to believe otherwise, and he tasks one of his assistants with lining up an A-list producer to helm his debut album. Dr. Dre and Rick Rubin reject him outright; P. Diddy, however, appears somewhat open to the prospect. Emboldened by the apparent validation from one of the industry's titans, Phoenix embarks on an abortive quest to gain an audience with the elusive hip-hop mogul, all the while continuing on his path to self-destruction. Highlights of which include a party with internet hookers and a fight with an assistant that leaves Phoenix covered in feces.

It's hard not to admire Phoenix's dedication to the role and the zeal with which he mocks himself. He and Affleck are simply merciless toward their lead character. The film's finest and funniest moments come during the concert performances, when Phoenix emerges onstage in his Hasidic Unabomber ensemble and launches into his brand of laughably incomprehensible mumble-rap, never breaking character even as the audience's mood shifts from enthusiastic to stupefied to uncomfortable — all in the span of less than a minute. After each performance, scathing media reports surface on the internet, at which Phoenix recoils with the characteristic sensitivity of an insecure artist. Then he lights up another joint and sets out in search of another adolescent diversion.

The film ends on a suitably pretentious note with a melancholy Phoenix jettisoning off to Peru, his middling music career in tatters after a series of setbacks that include a rejection from Diddy, a concert cut short by a belligerent heckler, and a now-infamous meltdown on the David Letterman Show. The camera follows a silent Phoenix as he slowly wades into a lake — the same lake he's seen diving happily into as a child at the beginning of the film — until his entire flabby body is submerged underwater. The image might strike many as an analogy for the fate of Phoenix's career in Hollywood, but I disagree. After all, we always knew that he can be a bit of a weirdo; I'm Still Here teaches us that he can be exceedingly clever as well. And there will always be a place in Hollywood for clever weirdos. rated this film 3 stars.