IM STILL HERE: THE LOST YEARS OF JOAQUIN PHOENIX begins as yet another chronicle of celebrity excess and self-indulgence and ends in jaw-dropping excursion into the self-destruction of a once-respected artist. Its one that is all-access, with brother-in-law Casey Affleck recording the pivotal moments of a year in turmoil, the year Phoenix announced his retirement from acting. There is the inevitable minutiae of Phoenixs life, from snorting drugs, to entertaining paid ladies of the evening, to the moment of epiphany moments after his bizarre appearance on David Letterman. Perhaps, too much access, as the camera zooms in on Phoenix vomiting after a performance designed to bolster his nascent music career, but its that very honesty that is all Phoenix has to offer by the time the film ends, and honesty is what the film ultimately wants to deal in. Or have us believe that it does.
It begins with Phoenix, bloated, mumbling, and hazily articulating why he wants to quit what he deems the puppet show of acting for a more meaningful and creative career as a hip-hop artist. He has rhymes, but surrounded as he is by assistants who are also his only friends, people who never say no and who put up with their employers emotional outbursts good and bad with equal equanimity, Phoenix is adrift in a world of his own making, where he is given what he wants without question, and told what he wants to hear.
The first half is a harsh introduction to that world, with director Affleck making scattered appearances as the putative voice of reason before disappearing once and for all behind the camera to let the drama unfold. Melodrama would be a better word. After the expected tropes of Phoenix berating an underling, ordering them to cavort with genitalia exposed for th camera, and taking an oblivious meeting with Ben Stiller about a part in GREENBURG, there is the slow realization that reality, the one the rest of us live in, has begun to dawn on Phoenix, though it has a hard time getting through. A meeting in his publicists office where his career may be on the line shows Phoenix grooving to he secret language of bees. A sequence with Edward James Olmos attempting to use metaphor with the distracted actor makes it obvious that the finer points of the lesson are lost, though Phoenix remembers enough to attempt a garbled precis later on.
Phoenixs game of hide and seek with the man he is convinced will make him a recording star, music producer Diddy, though, is the genesis of his awakening to the fact that a music career may not be his for the asking. From New York to Miami to Washington, he follows the promise of a few minutes of Diddys time and, when he finally gets the producers attention, its to discover that the world in general, and Diddy in particular, isnt waiting to jump start Phoenixs new calling. The central moment of the film and of Phoenixs life, is the now much-storied appearance on David Letterman to promote a film about which the actor seems to know very little. Phoenix is taciturn, peevish, and all but mute behind bushy hair, bushier beard, and sunglasses. Letterman, at a loss to do anything else, wraps up the interview with a regret that Phoenix couldnt be there with them tonight. The moments afterward hit him like a thunderclap. He is no longer a celebrity with the world dancing attendance, he is the butt of every joke coming out in the days and weeks to come. The film catalogues them all, including Stillers take on it at the Academy Awards that year, a moment made all the more pointed after seeing the backstory between those two. Affleck films Phoenix in the semi-dark, profile wreathed in cigarette smoke, watching his appearance on Letterman in studied and suddenly very sober silence.
The decline is precipitous. The underlings take even more abuse and one retaliates with what might be termed poetic, if profane, justice. It is at about this time that the film stops being just a record and becomes a cinematic version of an intervention. Phoenix becomes more and more detached from the world, but unable to find his way back as those around him, those that remain despite the tantrums, continue to enable the delusion. The claustrophobia of the limited world in which Phoenix has ensnared himself is at curious odds with the complete freedom that his money has given him and, paradoxically, made the ensnarement possible. This is life hermetically sealed in the present, though two glimpses of Phoenixs childhood begin the film, one of which catches him a lie. There is mention of him watching brother River overdose on the Sunset Strip, or the unconventional upbringing by his free-spirited parents.
Im STILL HERE: THE LOST YEARS OF JOAQUIN PHOENIX may or may not be a put-on. If it is, its done with a visceral edge that is as difficult to watch as it is morbidly fascinating. If not, the question becomes whether or not Phoenix, having burned so many bridges, saw no other way back into the public eye. It ends enigmatically, as it should. The camera following Phoenix as he wades in a stream, the water slowly rising as he continues until his head disappears beneath the water. The camera watches, doing nothing to stop what it records, caring only for the image, not for the person behind it.