Joaquin Phoenix could be the most narcissistic, sniveling, drugged-up mess of a man ever to appear on a screen. Or he could be the greatest actor of all time.
After watching "I'm Still Here," the just-released documentary that chronicles his 2008 departure from Hollywood and attempt to launch a rap career, the former seems more believable. But it's hard not to watch.
The film, directed by his brother-in-law, actor Casey Affleck, follows Phoenix through blow-up after blow-up, joint after joint, beer after beer. He screams, he smokes, he snorts. Over the course of a months-long quest for legitimacy that takes him all over the country and eventually to Panama, Phoenix insists that he's better than everyone else, that he deserves A-list treatment, that he's too cool for Hollywood, that he's got what it takes to make it as an emcee, and that no, this whole quitting-acting-taking-up-rapping thing is not a hoax.
Like a petulant child, he begs for attention. He gets it from salaried sycophants and assistants, and Affleck, who stays behind the cameras for almost all of the movie, is seemingly unperturbed by his friend's descent into madness.
Affleck's aloofness calls into question the nature of the film -- it's billed as a documentary but, at times, Phoenix seems to be playing to the camera instead of dissolving before it, displaying a level of idiocy that seems a stretch even for an Oscar-nominated actor (first for "Gladiator," then for "Walk the Line"). He never figures out how to address the rap mogul he stalks, Sean "Diddy" Combs. (Is it "Diddy?" Is it "Mr. Combs?" He can't be bothered to get it right.) Oh, he needs money to make an album? He didn't know that. He was too busy manically making snow angels.
Phoenix's antics bring to mind the stunts in "Jackass" and "Borat." He falls off stages, jumps into crowds to fight naysayers, and lures pretty women into his hotel room by questionable means. "I'm Still Here" features plenty of squirm-worthy footage: topless call girls, drugs galore, full frontal male nudity and, as rumored in the run-up to the movie's release, a defecation scene that will make you hide your eyes.
Being a decent human being is not at all on his agenda. During a trip to Washington in 2009 to track down Combs, who's in town for President Barack Obama's inauguration, Phoenix refuses to wake up to witness the main event. He spends the ride back to the airport blaming his assistants for not dragging him out of bed and complaining about how Leonardo DiCaprio and Tobey Maguire get to fly private while he, boo-hoo, is stuck in commercial. When Ben Stiller approaches him to act in "Greenberg," he yells. When Edward James Olmos offers him advice, he spits out an incomprehensible rap.
Phoenix sinks to low lows. It's still hard to sympathize with him. The key moment of "I'm Still Here" comes when he appears on David Letterman's "Late Show," the much-talked about appearance that featured Letterman making fun of Phoenix's inability to utter coherent sentences. Phoenix had a third grade-level retaliation: sticking gum on Letterman's desk. Cameras show the nerves that led up to Phoenix's appearance and the breakdown that follows -- he demands that his driver stop the car so he can go cry in the bushes of Central Park, whimpering about how everyone thinks he's a joke.
But even if Phoenix is a totally baseless individual, even if the film is not 100-percent documentary, there's something redeemable about "I'm Still Here." It paints the picture of the fame monster that drags down people who have (or had) talent but no grounding in reality -- a beast that some might argue dominates the better part of Hollywood. The "is this guy for real?!" factor makes the movie riveting. Phoenix's unpredictable tantrums make him as watchable as he is loathsome.
Early in the film, Phoenix muses, "All you can do is do something for yourself and believe in it and love it and hope that other people love it." People might not love "I'm Still Here," but it will get audiences thinking about celebrity, insanity and what goes on inside the mind of a man who appears to dabble in both.