So here we have this thing, I’m Still Here, an alleged documentary chronicling a year in the life of young Hollywood star Joaquin Phoenix. In a stroke of good luck, the documentary captures an exceedingly dramatic year, at the start of which Phoenix—a two-time Oscar nominee and million-dollar marquee name—abruptly announces his resignation from acting to pursue a career in hiphop. What follows is a quest for artistic purity undertaken by what appears to be the worst person in the world. In scene after scene, Phoenix casually indulges in the ugliest behavior you’ve ever seen from a Hollywood star: rampant drug use, aggressive emotional abuse, paranoid delusions, sexual harassment, and enthusiastic (for a coked-up pothead) whore-mongering. The scene of Phoenix awaiting the arrival of his hookers captures the slippery tone of the film: After drooling his way through the online escort listings like a cartoon horndog, he sits quietly by the window, looking down on the street. “This is the best part,” he says, tenderly, almost under his breath. “Waiting for them to show up and wondering what their buttholes smell like.”
And so it goes—scene after scene of cartoonish loutishness injected with startling flashes of dark but tangible humanity, with the clichés of the Hollywood Breakdown illuminated from the inside. Is this the work of a surreptitiously brilliant actor playing the postmodern role of his life? Or is I’m Still Here what it says it is, a document of a successful Hollywood star decimating his career in a lazy blaze of indulgence, excess, and delusion?
Either way, it’s something to see—imagine a Lars von Trier film if Lars von Trier had the good sense to sexually mutilate himself, and you’ll get a sense of I’m Still Here’s brutal slog through a self-made hell. Of course the smart money’s on the whole thing being an unusually elaborate put-on—events line up too neatly, and the end credits reveal that actors play certain real-life roles. But then there’s the scene of Phoenix literally being shit on by his vengeful assistant. Whether the “documentary” is real or fake, shit is shit, and throughout its frequently torturous running time, I’m Still Here offers up enough ugly grit to keep you horribly, morbidly fascinated. If it’s a joke, it’s one of the ugliest jokes ever told—a Borat that dares you to laugh. (And smells like shit.)