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Joaquin Phoenix‘s much-publicized retirement from acting in order to pursue his burgeoning career as a rapper had cries of “Hoax!” surrounding it from the very beginning, and its subsequent critical and audience response was mostly negative. However, despite the apparent trend of people upset at being duped, Casey Affleck’s I’m Still Here is a fascinating and frequently hilarious send-up of celebrity culture anchored by an amazingly committed performance from Phoenix. In the film, as in reality, this is the kind of thing that could potentially end a career and forever ruin a reputation, and the courage he displays in sticking to it is very impressive.
In one of the best scenes, Phoenix rejects an offer to co-star with Ben Stiller (who you would never guess by watching is in on the joke the whole time) in Greenberg; in another, he hilariously attempts to obtain a record deal with Sean “Puffy” Combs, who isn’t quite the actor Stiller is, though his performance is just good enough that its weaker elements could be seen as arrogant posturing for the cameras that follow Phoenix everywhere. Then there is the famous David Letterman interview, in which he mumbles and stares blankly at the roaring audience, seemingly unable to fathom why they think he’s so funny (Letterman was not in on the joke, but of course he is unfazed after previous encounters with the likes of Crispin Glover and Harmony Korine).
So, what of the supposed rapping, you ask? Is it any good? The answer is a resounding “not really.” While the filmmakers wisely make it just decent enough to convince us that an arrogant movie star who has lost his mind to drugs and the excess of stardom would believe it was his new calling, his flows are about what you’d see in the mid-range of a good Hip-Hop open mic. The rhymes are clumsy and mostly monosyllabic, the beats generic; Phoenix’s delivery is full of the gruff showmanship of a spoiled rich dude with no real inkling of the dues a great emcee must pay. The funniest part about it is that at his few live appearances as a rapper, star-struck morons who are clearly just tickled to be near an Oscar-nominated actor mostly cheer him on. At one such performance he tells the lone heckler, “I’ve got a million dollars in my bank account – what do you got?” Cue the cheers.
This is why the film works, and why it is has not permanently damaged Phoenix’s acting career. By committing himself so fully to the performance and taking a great risk of being reviled and blacklisted by the Hollywood community, Phoenix has made a strong and convincing statement about our celebrity culture and the idea of reinventing oneself. Beyond any of that, though, it’s a very fun movie to watch, and all the more impressive for making you wonder what’s real even when you know it’s a hoax.