It soon emerged that Phoenix's friend and brother-in-law Casey Affleck was capturing the switch from movies to music and, naturally, questions began to arise about the authenticity of events unfolding. Is I'm Still Here one big elaborate hoax? Affleck and Phoenix's broadside on the shallowness of celebrity culture? Of course, putting a camera in someone's face will always distort reality and elements such as the camera cutaways and sound-looping mean that not everything was captured "as is". Add that to the fact that in a scene late on Phoenix's father is played by Tim Affleck (dad to Casey and Ben) and things get foggy. Some staging has clearly taken place, yet Phoenix is so convincing as a selfish, petulant and egotistical wash-out that you're inclined to believe everything that the director presents.
The documentary does not answer all the questions it asks, but it doesn't really matter. Truth or fiction, this is a riveting portrait of self-destruction. Phoenix - or "JP" in his rap persona - finds himself slipping further into an emotional and career abyss. The people around him, including Anthony Langdon (formerly of rock band Spacehog), his long-suffering manager Larry and publicist Susan, get treated shabbily as Phoenix sets out on a quest to recruit Sean 'Diddy' Combs to produce his debut album. The hip-hop mogul ends up crushing JP's dreams, questioning his commitment to music and telling him matter-of-factly: "You're not ready to work with me yet."
I'm Still Here has caused something of a stir for its scenes of male full-frontal nudity, drug taking and, in one grim instance, Langdon defecating on Phoenix while he sleeps. Look past the controversy, though, and this is a comedy that's toe-curlingly funny and stingingly bittersweet. Phoenix, like the subjects of Sacha Baron Cohen and Ricky Gervais's mockumentaries, is a comedy buffoon completely unaware of how ridiculous he is becoming. Affleck's carefully managed bursts of humour keep the film from becoming too bleak. Phoenix's rant about Revolutionary Road getting Oscar nominations and his Reservation Road getting ignored is priceless, so too is Diddy's struggle to remember which films Casey Affleck has been in.
The film starts with home video footage of a young Joaquin leaping into a lake in Panama and closes in the same location. As the now bearded, bulky star wades deeper into the water Affleck is perhaps trying to show his friend on the brink of a rebirth. Where Leaf, Joaquin or JP goes next, who knows?
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