I'm Still Here (R) (108 min.) — Whether Joaquin Phoenix's psychotic retirement from acting is a hoax or not, watching his purported downfall is an interminable movie experience. This is the finest performance of Phoenix's career, if success is measured by breeding contempt.
In fact, that's the best clue that I'm Still Here is an elaborate put-on; this kind of irrational behavior from anyone else would likely elicit pity or laughter. Anything but wishing he'd get it over with, by whatever means. It's also telling that Phoenix's brother-in-law Casey Affleck is behind the camera; I can't imagine a truly loving family member exposing such a repulsive personality unless it's all just a sick joke.
How repulsive? Well, Phoenix is shown indulging in what is likely fake cocaine and faker prostitutes, treating his unbelievably loyal caretakers like dirt (he makes one expose his genitals practically on cue), and taking his delusions of being a rap music star to a violent end in a Miami nightclub. Phoenix is such a jerk that when an employee rebels by defecating on the star's face while sleeping, a silent cheer is understandable.
What could Phoenix honestly expect to gain from this movie if it happens to be true? Nobody in Hollywood would ever trust him enough to hire again. More likely it's a stunt that Phoenix believes a triumphant "tah-dah" can smooth over.
The end credits reveal the most damning evidence that I'm Still Here is lying, with several involved parties identified as actors. Then you notice that the most convincing onlookers to Phoenix's professional train wreck (Diddy and David Letterman among them) are also in show biz, making their recoiling, eye-rolling reactions mean less.
I'm Still Here is amateurishly shot and edited, as if ineptness equaled some higher level of veracity. Ironically, it's the only Joaquin Phoenix movie anyone has cared about in years. Opens Friday only at BayWalk 20 in St. Petersburg. F
Steve Persall, Times film critic