Joaquin Phoenix has proven that even the most scrutinizing, cynical critics can be duped, and indeed they were. Don’t watch “I’m Still Here” for the awkward, unnecessary male nudity, the disgusting scatological humor or the cacophonous raps. If for no other reason, watch it because Phoenix dedicated two years of his life to make it, and he did an excellent job at convincing us that he was finished with acting, all while ironically employing the damnedest acting chops we’ve ever seen from him. “I’m Still Here” is the epitome of method acting, and it may very well become one of the definitive cult classics of our generation.

I’m Still Here

At the State
Magnolia Pictures

The mockumentary chronicles Phoenix’s decline from a handsome young actor — whose work in films like “Gladiator,” “Walk the Line” and “Two Lovers” was universally lauded — to a disheveled, mumbling Joaquin 2.0. While news outlets jumped at the chance to speculate about the reason for his abrupt retirement, only Phoenix’s most trusted associates knew that his aspirations to be a hip-hop artist were part of an elaborate act.

Any discerning audience member should recognize the subtleties that hint at a mockumentary. Several of the situations Phoenix finds himself in (as well as the lighting and dialogue that accompany them) suggest that the events were entirely preconceived. Even so, the line between fact and fiction is blurred just enough to confound those who knew the fallacious nature of the whole affair before they had even breached the doors of the theater.

This particular work is brilliant due neither to its cinematography nor its direction. Succinctly put, the film as a whole looks like the documentary of a raucous fraternity with scant membership. But it shows a sense of aptitude and self-awareness that compensates nicely for each and every shortcoming. In some ways the movie is akin to films such as “Grindhouse” and “Machete,” B-movies that not only settle for, but strive to be, poorly conceived.

Either way, it’s a rare occasion when one watches a movie and feels as if the character an actor portrays is the result of not merely painstaking preparation, but the complete alteration of a lifestyle. In this case, Phoenix’s performance is effective and believable because it’s not Phoenix as Johnny Cash, nor is it Phoenix as Commodus. It’s Phoenix as himself, and even those of us who know the truth behind this charade are tempted to believe that his insanity stems not from a hoax, but from a lamentable change of heart. And that is the essence of acting.

Perhaps this is a situation in which Joaquin truly made a series of bad decisions and has now doubled back to his former, sound self. Maybe this is a repeat of “Evil Dead,” the Sam Raimi debut that apparently strove to be a serious horror film and ended up unintentionally hilarious. But even if Phoenix made a bad career move, realized his mistake and ran with the idea that “it was all for show” to save face, he’s still proven that the nature of celebrity and those that adhere to it are fickle and superficial. He’s not only validated his career — he has elevated it to heights that will likely see him through more than a few prominent roles in the near future.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.