Whether Phoenix’s performance is manufactured or not, though I believe it is, is beside the point. If we take it at face value, than his actions are deplorable; he treats the people around him like shit, while neurotically painting himself the wounded victim. He’s fixated on the conspiratorial judgment of the oppressive world, and whines that preconception clouds his audience’s ability to appreciate his ludicrous venture into hip-hop. But get real. The character is built that way to support a deliberate statement, which makes “I’m Still Here” even less valuable.
Who exactly is Phoenix meant to represent, and better yet, why should we care? The idiosyncrasies of the character are obvious, but unlike Sasha Baron Cohen’s alter egos Borat, Bruno, and Ali G, Phoenix’s goal is unclear. Worst of all, the character isn’t funny. Hiding behind a pair of stupid shades, usually with a cigarette or joint hanging out of his mouth, he mumbles incoherently about his inner-frustration and his inability to garner respect along his new career path.
Are we meant to feel sympathy for the megalomaniacal millionaire? Or are we meant to sneer at the idiot white boy who thinks he can rap? Affleck wants it both ways, but achieves neither. He plays Phoenix’s awkward a cappella for cheap laughs, but expects us to defend him when heckled. Probably most telling, however, is that the funniest moments in “I’m Still Here” come at Phoenix’s expense. Replaying the infamous Letterman appearance to an audience that’s still laughing at him is the greatest proof of the experiment’s emotional failure. The character is supremely unlikable, and no honest attempt is made to humanize him or to peer below his portly, unkempt façade.
Still, the lowest point comes from the scenes Affleck implements to falsely contextualize real moments, like Ben Stiller’s impression of Phoenix at the 2009 Oscars. Affleck preempts the jab with an early scene in which Stiller offers Phoenix a role in “Greenberg.” In the film, Phoenix had already announced his retirement from acting, so besides making no sense sequentially, the retroactive intention of the exploitative scene is solely to make Stiller seem cruel later on.
Sorry guys, but I’m on his side. Phoenix doesn’t deserve our pity. Earnest or otherwise, when you draw attention to yourself the way he has, you open yourself up to parody. Furthermore, if he truly is just being himself, it’s a wonder that he lets the skepticism get to him.
But put-on or not, the Phoenix in the film has no arc. His character is no closer to achieving his dream by the end, nor are we any closer to understanding what that dream means, to him or anyone. He plays a couple of miserable shows in a Miami nightclub, and spends weeks moping around one of his dingy apartments because hip-hop producer Sean “Diddy” Combs won’t take a meeting with him. World’s smallest violin.
The film is practically and thematically insubstantial. The only profound statement made is that a studio agreed to distribute “I’m Still Here,” and idiots like me paid to see it. In our celebrity-obsessed culture, maybe Affleck and Phoenix were issuing a condemnation of the very notion of buying tickets to an artistic breakdown, but somehow that seems like a stretch. Either way, the joke’s on us.