Review: Joaquin Phoenix’s Docu-Hoax Isn’t Worth All His Navel-Gazing

The ruse would make Andy Kaufman proud, but director Casey Affleck leaves the cameras on too long

A couple of weeks after David Letterman mocked a shaggy bearded, sunglasses-wearing Joaquin Phoenix for impersonating a gum-chewing catatonic on “The Late Show,” I was discussing the incident with a roomful of twentysomethings.

“How many of you saw the original appearance on Letterman that night?” I asked. Two hands went up. “How many saw it the next day by watching the clip online?” I asked. Every single hand shot up.

No celebrity misstep goes unwatched or under-analyzed these days. Want to hear Mel Gibson screaming abuse at his baby mama? Want to catch Lindsay Lohan in close-up crying as a judge sentences her to prison? Want to see Joaquin Phoenix rapping in one of his fledgling gigs as a rapper, shot via a cell phone camera by someone in the audience? Instantly downloadable.

It's this echo chamber that is the target of “I’m Still Here,” the quasi-mockumentary film from first-time director Casey Affleck and collaborator Phoenix.

In the film, co-written by Affleck and Phoenix, cameras follow the Oscar-nominated actor for a year as he supposedly gives up acting to pursue his new musical career. 

Phoenix, as he portrays himself here, is an egotistical, cocaine-sniffing, dope-smoking prostitute-hiring, tantrum-throwing, bloated bundle of anxiety. He rants that, as a movie actor, he is no more than a puppet, one who wears clothes he’s told to wear, moves to marks he’s told to stand on and reads lines from a script.

He yearns, apparently, to express his real self, to let his creative self flow as rapper. That he displays no discernable talent in either writing or delivering songs does not seem an impediment to his dream. (The gobsmacked look on music producer Sean “Puffy” Combs’ face as he listens to a couple of Phoenix’s raps says it all.)

It’s a ruse that would make Andy Kaufman proud, and an an extended attempt to puncture the ever-expanding, gaseous bubble that is celebrity culture.

(Apparently the ruse hasn't stopped with the film's completion; also read: "The 'Fake Joaquin Phoenix' Flap in Toronto: It's a Fraud, Too.")

When Phoenix announces that he’s retiring from acting — a pronouncement delivered with no warning on the red carpet to an open-mouthed Jerry Penacoli an entertainment correspondent with TV’s “Extra” — the news reverberates through the media stratosphere. The story is treated as if its importance were on par with the outbreak of World War III.

Phoenix himself is as obsessed with the coverage as we are. There are endless shots of him surfing the web to view photos, videos and coverage of himself. If no one wrote about him, or dissed him online, would he still exist?

Unfortunately, the movie isn’t really worth the time and expense that went into making it. There are some funny bits, especially when Phoenix berates his sycophantic hangers-on. But while one admires Affleck and Phoenix’s commitment to the project — Phoenix has not acted in a film since 2008’s “Two Lovers” and has nothing in the works — it is too much the extended meta-skit. Its satirical points could easily have been made in 10 or 20 minutes rather than “Here’s” 106-minute running time.

I kept thinking of those “Chattanooga Choo-Choo” jokes. Those are the jokes that always end up punning off the song's chorus, which goes, "Pardon me, boy, is that the Chattanooga Choo-Choo?." After a long involved shaggy dog of a story, they invariably wind up with the line, "Pardon me, Roy, is that the cat that chewed my new shoes?"

“I’m Still Here” is like those jokes: The effort expended on the elaborate hoax of making the film — and in watching it — just doesn’t offer enough of a payoff.