In 2008, with a grizzly beard and a noticeably growing belly, actor Joaquin Phoenix announced that he’d be retiring from acting to pursue a career in hip-hop. His brother-in-law, fellow actor Casey Affleck, would document the career move and Phoenix’s life at home. The result is I’m Still Here, in which the coke-snorting star becomes isolated from his friends and career, writing terrible music whilst the media points and laughs at his apparent weirdness.
After seeing the film, I was surprised by reviews I had started to read that still weren’t sure whether or not the whole thing was a hoax. For sure, part of the movie’s success lies in how its stunts prompted a cruel response in some quarters, and the argument that it must be a hoax in others – a belief the film shows Phoenix responding to with astonishment. But his perfect timing during public appearances, the unashamedly parodic rap lyrics, and the outrageously drawn out final shot and closing music are moments of blatant satire.
Overall, the film lost money at the box office. This could be put down to weaknesses of its promotion, or problems in an experiment whose outcome depended on public reactions (the name of Affleck’s production company – They Are Going To Kill Us Productions – suggests that the filmmakers knew they were taking a risk). But this failure could also signal something else.
I’m Still Here stars a huge number of celebrities, and was made during a time when stars were appearing week after week on TV series like Entourage and 30 Rock, where writers cleverly provide them with roles that draw attention to and play with the public image of the person in question. Hollywood and its heroes are more willing than ever to send themselves up, but the unpopularity of I’m Still Here bears witness to the novelty factor that underlies the modern American celebrity cameo. One of the film’s less interesting appearances is from Ben Stiller: the numerous riffs he’s done on American celebrity culture – when directing Zoolander or Tropic Thunder and appearing on Extras or Curb Your Enthusiasm – mean that the only persona he’s now satirising is that of a satirist.
Phoenix’s performance has been bold and exciting, but despite it being the logical extreme of a popular trend, most audiences either didn’t care or didn’t get it. A few months before I’m Still Here’s release, Tom Cruise announced that he was making a full-length film about Les Grossman, the despicable movie producer he plays in Tropic Thunder. Funny as his performance may have been, the film will struggle to match I’m Still Here’s irony, self-consciousness or daring. Cruise’s best career choice wasn’t starring in a Ben Stiller film; it was starring in Eyes Wide Shut and Magnolia, films made with seriousness that turns the personal lives of their stars into footnotes. It’s by acting well and promoting interesting filmmaking that a movie star earns respect. Phoenix has done that; now, he better stay away from choosing any role that later requires him to do an apologetic TV cameo.