Joaquin Phoenix Implodes to Prove a Point

'I'm Still Here' takes on the Hollywood machine. We think

Was this all staged? Probably, but does that matter if it feels true? In fact, the end credits more or less confirm I’m Still Here to be, if not a traditional work of fiction, then at least primarily a performance produced for cameras. It seems that this is a secret the filmmakers and their distributor have been trying to protect through cryptic advertising and limited advance screening (I was required to sign an embargo/confidentiality agreement before entering the theater), hoping to keep the mystery alive. But now, knowing that I’m Still Here was more invented than accidental raises more questions than it answers.

In other words, the question of whether or not they’re fucking with us is easily settled; it’s much harder to determine why they’re fucking with us. And are they even fucking with us—the average viewer with no direct experience of what it feels like to be a celebrity, who can only make inferences and judgments based on the images that are presented to us—or are they fucking with their fellow celebrities, who stand to feel the force of the less than flattering aspects of themselves in Phoenix’s portrayal? Though clearly mocking the delusions of grandeur embodied in one of Phoenix’s rap verses—“I’m still real/I won’t kneel/I’m the one God’s chosen, bitch”—most of the film isn’t that broadly funny or apparently playful. At once deeply felt and devastatingly cynical, I’m Still Here’s bone-dry satire couldn’t exist without the celebrity-media feedback loop. But its apparent attack on the Hollywood machine is so insidery, so vicious that to us—the everyday consumer—it’s just not clear why this stunt needed to exist at all.

I’m Still Here was directed by Casey Affleck; and features Joaquin Phoenix. Rated R. Select theaters.

A shortened version of this review appeared in print as "The Joke’s on Whom? Take that, Hollywood! Joaquin Phoenix implodes to prove a point. Some point. We think."

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