There’s an episode of The Simpsons where Bart dreams of being a rock star. Rather than picturing himself popular and swathed in adoring fans, instead, Bart pictures himself drunk, bloated and dyspeptic. In The Simpsons, it’s a joke. In Hollywood, it’s the truth. Fame is rotten, but the rot has allure. That’s why famous people find it so hard to be good, because people want them for their fame, and unadulterated want…won’t judge, even the most heinous crimes. Famous people act badly the way sinking ships set off distress flares. Every ugly scene is a warning: “I’m poison” it says. Joaquin Phoenix’s new movie, I’m Still Here, is a quasi-comedy about toxic celebrity. It’s the sort of movie Mel Gibson should watch on a loop.
Shot in documentary-style, the movie charts a “lost” period in Joaquin’s life (spanning two years) where he tries to quit acting and embark on a rap career. No reason is ever given for Joaquin’s avowed yearning to break into rap music, and no talent for rap is evinced either. In fact, Joaquin spends far more time smoking, gaining weight and reading children’s books than he ever does writing or recording lyrics, and his personal hygiene appears to decline to that of a scrofulous medieval peasant. He swears, he drinks, he snorts snowdrifts of cocaine. He mumbles inarticulate plans to his grovelling assistants…and behaves, in all ways, like a complete and unrepentant bastard. It’s funny in that seeing-the-bone-poking-through-your-leg-after-an-accident, oh Christ!, ha ha ha…kind of way. But you may have to be British, or otherwise mordantly predisposed, to like it.
Taking inspiration from the sort of mock (or is it?) documentaries that Werner Herzog sometimes dabbles in, Casey Affleck withholds Spinal Tap-style jokes. Joaquin’s childishness is never so exaggerated that it becomes implausible. His encounters with prostitutes seem very real. It’s why the term “quasi-comedy” seems most appropriate, because, although the sight of Joaquin pissing on his career and caricaturing himself as a debauched, barely literate loner…is ripe for bitter black comedy, the movie doesn’t pursue a single tack; it flirts with many. You’re never sure when to laugh or when to wince, and that unease, the hint that maybe you too are a voyeur, is to the movie’s credit. You’re never comfortable enough to mock.
That said; we never plumb too deep. There’s no mention of River Phoenix, who died, age 23, of a drug overdose outside West Hollywood’s Viper Room. No mention of the fact Joaquin Phoenix was with his brother when he died, or that he was the one who made the harrowing emergency call. The best clue that this isn’t a real documentary is in these omissions. The real obscenity, death, is never touched on. The movie doesn’t go where River, or Heath Ledger, or Brittany Murphy, or Brad Renfro went…where there is no audience. Whatever the vast soul-sucking boredom is that bleaches Hollywood, we don’t see it. There’s a lot shit and piss and vomit in I’m Still Here, but these things, however nasty, are still life.
Does it really matter whether Joaquin remains an actor? Although the movie treats his “retirement” as if Joaquin had decided to commit ritual suicide, he is, in the end, only fussing over whether to switch jobs. Few non-famous people treat this decision as life-threatening. The sheer grandiose heights to which Joaquin raises his predicament are laughable once you consider a) he could get a job which didn’t involve being famous, and b) even if being famous made that a problem, fame does fade, pretty fast, once you leave Los Angeles. It’s other famous people – and the media – who are hypnotised by Joaquin’s antics. Regular people scarcely know who he is.
The magnificence of destroying yourself – for your art – is tricky to separate from behaving like a fool. The kind of courage Arthur Miller talks about – in A View From the Bridge, where the tragic hero, Eddie Carbone, “allow[s] himself to be wholly known” – is easy to mistake for selfishness, and self-delusion, and just generally being an asshole. By the time Joaquin Phoenix submerges himself in a Panamanian river, having torn through the veils of Hollywood, dignity, and self-respect, you feel a sense of relief…that you don’t have to know him anymore. He may have transcended celebrity; he may still be taping. But the title of the movie, you feel sure, relates to him. He’s still “there”. I think the message of the movie is: stay away.