Who gives a shit? Why does a celebrity's vanity project matter? That can pretty much be asked of any actor or filmmaker or artist's work. It's what it has to say, how it makes you feel, and how entertaining it is that matters, and the beauty of I'm Still Here, which even mocks the Dylan movie I'm Not There and its poster, is how many mysterious layers there are.
Casey Affleck, the director and Joaquin's brother-in-law, said recently that pretty much all of this was a performance. And I agree with him that this is Joaquin's most amazing role. I think some people are still doubting Casey has spoken the truth, but that's just a testament to the mock's message: that all people single-mindedly pay attention to is whether it's real or fake.
The movie's goal is to make it look as real as possible, so we buy into it, but at the same time, wink at us with absurd humor. Things are too well-constructed. How it cuts to Joaquin talking to a reporter and suddenly, dryly admitting he's done with acting... How during a meeting with "Diddy," we get a perfectly-composed straight-on shot of Diddy's blank face as he listens to Joaquin's horrible music. Here is a movie about a celebrity jumping identity and career, and look, Sean P. Diddy Puff Daddy Combs is doing some more acting! Even the home video at the beginning was fake. That had me fooled.
The real vs. fake dilemma is at the basis of pop culture. Reality TV. YouTube vids. Celebrities whose main talent is to "be a celebrity." I guess because we can't tell what's real, because everything is "real", we are obsessed with it. The mock crosses this tightrope, illustrating how easy it is to act and be real simultaneously. Phoenix's performance is a dichotomy. When does performance cease to become performance? If a man is talking to me in "character", and I don't know he's in character, what does that say about me and my own characters I put on for others?
There is a sad undercurrent to all of this. Yes, it's some of the pity variety, for Joaquin, who self-destructed (if he did lose himself in the role that much), or slaved away (if he knew what he was doing). But more than that, it's a sadness for the state of art.
Because while we are busy scorning Phoenix for ditching his career and fans, or tricking us into thinking he did, we forget that the point of any work of art like this is to generate compassion. That's always the last thing to come to us. Perhaps because after working all day, movies are a time for ourselves, and we don't want to see any of Joaquin's lowliness to remind us of our own. But like Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull, and like most real people, the character deserves compassion -- the look in his eyes backstage after the Letterman incident says it all.
It doesn't stand above its audience. It's entertaining. It's damn funny, even though it's long in a few places. It even understands why we would feel such shock. It doesn't glorify, except in moments where it pokes fun at documentary-gravitas, like at the very end, with a way-too-long shot of Phoenix wading through the water -- I doubt the filmmakers took this shot that seriously.
By taking the path of a slyer meta-version of Sacha Baron Cohen's work, it reaches the complexity of high-art. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy, that was meant to be so... a mission to hold up the mirror to celebrity culture, and a lesson on how pretending not to do so actually gets the desired result.