Still Here, a documentary about the tumultuous life of Joaquin Phoenix
that offers Scientologist whackjob Edward James Olmos as its poet
laureate and Sean Combs (aka Puff Daddy, P Diddy, Sean John, etc.) as
its voice of reason, will be a litmus test viewing experience for people
concerned with issues of authenticity, ethics or good taste.
After going through the Young Hollywood rites of passage, maturing from child star, to indie “it boy” and eventually into a bona fide mainstream success (even winning a Golden Globe for his role in Walk the Line), Joaquin Phoenix announced in late 2008 he would retire from acting to pursue a new career as a hip hop musician. According to his imdb biography, Phoenix attended rehab for alcoholism in 2006, but his sobriety is never commented on throughout the many scenes where he snorts cocaine, smokes marijuana or goes on protracted rants about the communication practice of bees or how people are out to get him.
And even though he takes his public declaration (an exclusive he gave to tabloid tv show "Extra") very seriously and spends many hours in his home studio laying down tracks, when his big break comes, a chance to play his demo for rap mogul Puff Daddy, he’s too doped up to make the meeting and spends the rest of the film chasing after Puff’s approval. While waiting on phone calls to be returned from the famed producer he sleeps with hookers, does more drugs, goes on tyrannical rants threatening his employees (all of his creative collaborators also seem to work as his personal assistants). When he finally gets a chance to visit Puffy in the studio (the first time we really get to hear Phoenix’s music since he mumbles his way through his public performances) he is devastated by the polite but firm rebuking his songwriting skills receive.
The collaboration between Phoenix (given a Writer/Producer credit here) and director Casey Affleck (also a young actor who benefited from nepotistic opportunity but seems to hold less anxiety about it) is constantly commented on by the duo. For people who spend their professional life performing for cameras and have their personal lives documented by tabloids the concept of “inner life” is a fairly tenuous one. Unfortunately for Phoenix, his only apparent framework for understanding how people’s stories can be developed is narrative films. In one scene, he screams at an assistant who’s been feeding insider information to entertainment writers “you’re the villain here, the audience is going to see the good guy win now!” [Point of order: the assistant is not fired for feeding supposedly false or private information to the media.]
The presence of Affleck’s camera has transformed Phoenix’s decline into an object of endless public speculation. Rumors of Phoenix’s retirement being an elaborate prank have been given far more credibility than the more obvious possibility that Phoenix is an indecisive, over-indulged junkie surrounded by people who have a financial stake in keeping him in the news. Two actors collaborating to make a documentary about celebrity culture is fertile grounds for bullshit (excuse me, “performance art”), but it still seems like a better perspective on the situation than the pageant of inanity we see in Phoenix’s final press junket wherein entertainment writers meekly ask questions like “Will Puffy be writing lyrics as well as music?” Too inert or afraid to make the same bold proclamations they do on their Twitter accounts.
Affleck deserves less ambivalent kudos for his sense of composition and pacing. Periodically he frames Phoenix as a stolid lump being spliced to bits by paparazzi flashbulbs; there’s a long, silent scene where the sad actor shares a table with his father that speaks volumes and the final shot (a takeoff on Michelangelo Antonioni’s last scene in The Passenger) is a wonderful, contemplative moment to wrap up his noisy, chaotic film.