I'm Still Here (15)

Joaquin Phoenix's rapping has turned him into a joke.

I'm Still Here (15)
dir: Casey Affleck

Previously, in the wacky world of Joaquin Phoe­nix: it's autumn 2008, and 34-year-old, square-headed Joaquin, renowned for his hulking intensity in films both conventional (Gladiator, Walk the Line) and idiosyncratic (To Die For, The Yards), announces that he's retiring from acting to become a rapper. A broadly incredulous response turns to ridicule once it transpires that he can't actually rap.

Most people aren't hit by the full stench of rat until after Phoenix turns up on the Late Show with David Letterman, mumbling and squirming from somewhere within a Brian Blessed beard. He is ostensibly there to plug his latest (and, supposedly, last) acting job, Two Lovers, but seems not to have heard of this fine movie. Presumably his mind is on another film: the documentary that his brother-in-law and fellow actor Casey Affleck is shooting about this curious career change.

Now the end product, I'm Still Here, is upon us, released so soon after its Venice premiere that you would be forgiven for thinking the distributor wanted to rush it into cinemas before the cat was fully out of the bag. Affleck's film is about as much of a documentary as Avatar, but that is beside the point. The picture places Phoenix in the postmodernist tradition of actors sending fictional versions of themselves out into the world - think of Michel Blanc plagued by his own impersonator in Grosse fatigue or John Malkovich casting vanity to the wind in Being John Malkovich.

The movie's conceit is that Phoenix is sick of playing "Joaquin Phoenix"; he decides, during rehearsals for a Paul Newman memorial tribute, to bow out of acting. In a delicious instance of bathos, he makes this life-changing disclosure not to any of the heavyweights in the room, such as Sean Penn or Jack Nicholson, but to Danny DeVito's stand-in. Affleck and Phoenix have a good ear for such pocket-sized absurdities. Later, we hear Phoenix griping about choosing the wrong road movie - why was his performance in Reservation Road ignored, he wonders, when Leonardo DiCaprio was feted for Revolutionary Road?

Too often, Phoenix is content to translate the discontentment of his character - and, however authentic the emotions, it is a character - into boorishness. We see him bullying his assistant, hiring prostitutes and taking drugs. In more pensive moments, he ponders a fly's relationship to its wings, or ineptly paraphrases Zen homilies. It's baffling that the movie equates unhappiness with a drop in IQ, not to mention a self-awareness malfunction so severe that it enables Phoenix to lapse into his pitiful raps during casual conversation.

The seriousness of the film's points about the claustrophobia of success is undermined not by its fakery, but by a limited emotional register that resorts too easily to the comedy of embarrassment. It might be obscurely admirable that Phoenix is willing to be demeaned - it is certainly preferable to watching Banksy fortify his own reputation in another mockumentary, Exit Through the Gift Shop. But an audience needs something meatier to chew on than an actor's prolonged humiliation. Nor is there any food for thought in the film's visual metaphors, such as Phoenix releasing a tiny bird that has entered his home, or pounding on a door marked "Not an Exit". A wordless final sequence, in which he retreats to the Panamanian jungle, buys into the cliché of the pampered white man going back to nature.

The picture's primary fascination lies in its intersections with the "real" world, as exemplified by Ben Stiller's mocking impersonation of Phoenix at the Oscars ceremony, or by any of the actor's disastrous gigs. Conspicuous by his absence is the director James Gray, who gave Phoenix a hat-trick of strong roles, including in Two Lovers. That picture's commercial failure has been blamed on Phoenix turning himself into a public joke when he should have been fulfilling his promotional duties.

Gray has grumbled about this in the press, and with good reason. The actor may have emerged from his hiatus with I'm Still Here to his name, but he also played his part in killing off another, far superior film.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 20 September 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Catholicism in crisis