You wonder what Joaquin Phoenix and director/brother-in-law Casey Affleck had in mind when they decided to put together “I’m Still Here.” It’s a documentary yet it’s fake, funny yet tragic, bizarre but also very personal and therapeutic. Like Phoenix wants to go to the dark corners of his mind to play out those mental traps an artist can fall into. In this movie, Phoenix is over-indulgent, needy, and entirely convinced he’s nothing but a hack.
He begins the film fed up with acting, feeling like an actor is just a puppet for someone elses creativity. So, he quits and decides to try his hand at hip-hop. Only, there’s two problems. The first is that he really isn’t that good. The second is that self-consciousness is driving Phoenix–going by the stage name “JP”– insane. He spins further toward a kind of madness, ignoring personal hygiene, gaining weight, acquiring a scruffy beard, acting in erratic ways, and doing cocaine and buying prostitutes.
At the same time he dispenses random thoughts about insect wings, mediocrity, and goes into moody rants toward his entourage of hangers-on. As he continually gets frustrated with his stagnant rap career he also develops paranoia, all while that (very real) media buzz about all this quitting acting stuff being a hoax or not swirls in the background. It’s sometimes very funny (the Letterman appearance is here in its entirety and Phoenix showing his demo to Puffy is hilarious), and even crude (Phoenix gets a rude wake-up call by a friend) but in Phoenix’s hands, it’s also astonishingly brave and tragic stuff. This is the best performance I’ve seen this year, showing how talent can lead to despair and mental turmoil. “Here” is more performance art than anything else, but it works.