I'm Still Here (15), Casey Affleck, 108 mins

Starring Joaquin Phoenix

Watching Casey Affleck's I'm Still Here, you're faced with two possibilities (or at least you were until three days ago when Affleck came clean about the true nature of his film). One possibility was that the film was a documentary, in which case, it would be a disturbing one – not to say intrusive and exploitative. Affleck has turned his camera on his fellow actor – and brother-in-law – Joaquin Phoenix, at a critical moment. Acclaimed for his starring roles, Phoenix decides he's had enough – of acting, of fame, of shaving – and tells the world, from behind a wild thicket of beard, that he's leaving cinema to become a rapper.

Phoenix seems to be undergoing a breakdown, as becomes apparent in a notorious chat-show appearance. Shambling and monosyllabic, he becomes the butt of David Letterman's one-liners: "Joaquin, I'm sorry you couldn't be here tonight." It's a sorry story, and Affleck captures every pitiful moment, from Phoenix's earnest attempts to impress rap mogul Sean "P. Diddy" Combs to his nervous backstage vomiting. Affleck goes where few directors would have the nerve to, and where no normal brother-in-law would have the decency to.



Well, that was one reading of I'm Still Here, if you chose to buy it. The other possibility, however, was that the film was a put-up job, recording and perpetuating an elaborate performance project that Phoenix has apparently been committed to for something like two years.



There are certainly points where pretence and reality intersect. Phoenix, it's clear, genuinely is sick of the acting treadmill, and sufficiently weary of playing the matinée idol to let his physique go to seed: shirt off, he carries a Brando-esque layer of flab. But as for rapping, he's really taking the piss. His self-pitying lamentations, delivered in stumblebum monotone, are at best borderline-competent, although not so inept that they instantly reveal themselves as parody.



Allegedly peeling back the Hollywood façade, Affleck shows us the life of a pampered star as, supposedly, it really is. We see Phoenix insulting his assistants, nuzzling a hooker's breasts, laying out cocaine while barking, "Who's the nigger in charge here?" He raps in clubs, barely able to finish one number without throwing a strop. The star's attempts to meet Diddy, with a view to collaboration, make for excruciating pathos. When he finally gets an audience in the producer's studio, Combs coolly shreds Phoenix's hopes.



However, the showbiz gossip circuit quickly sniffs the possibility that Phoenix is pulling a hoax, and that very suspicion is built into the film. The star takes tearful umbrage on being accused of fakery, then turns viciously on his assistant Antony, accusing him of spreading rumours. Eventually, even this faithful yes man has enough and takes his revenge, in the film's most scabrous joke.



There are plenty of clues to what's really happening – including the credit "Written and produced by Casey Affleck and Joaquin Phoenix". Many scenes have a manifestly staged look – notably those featuring Ben Stiller, who drops by to offer Phoenix the best-buddy role in his own latest film. All in all, this mock-vérité comedy of Tinseltown folly suggests a rap-inflected answer to Larry David – a sort of Curb Your Enthusiasm, Muthafucka. Phoenix's often horrifying antics also recall the daredevil public-baiting stunts of the late comedian Andy Kaufman. This is career suicide as performance art.



Phoenix may have comprehensively dismantled his star aura, but he hasn't done himself any harm as a performer. Watched in this context, the Letterman appearance comes across as acting of the highest calibre, Phoenix's zombie impassivity never cracking for a moment. In the scenes with Combs especially, Phoenix is uncomfortably funny: his "Joaquin" character is a self-indulgent boor, but likeably vulnerable too.



It's a good performance, if one-dimensional. But in the end, you wonder what Project Phoenix actually reveals, other than that stars are infantile, fame lets you get away with murder, and the media machine is gullible. With or without the subsequent revelation, Phoenix comes across as a privileged prince. Look – he seems to be saying – I'm so compelling that I can make myself a monster with impunity.



Without doubt, the world of celebrity needs to be demystified, to break our rapt obsession. But when that world is criticised from within, there's inevitably a taint of poor-little-rich-kid pleading. The film's coda certainly plumps for lonely-at-the-top pathos. At the start of I'm Still Here, we see a video clip of a child jumping into a Panama waterfall – apparently Phoenix's primal "Rosebud" moment. At the end, the adult Joaquin returns to Panama to share a silent beer with his dad. It's a poignant scene – except that Phoenix Snr, the credits reveal, is played by Tim Affleck, the director's father.



In the end, Phoenix's cleverest trick may have been to reveal nothing whatsoever about his real self. When three days ago Casey Affleck confessed to The New York Times that his film was indeed bogus through and through, it transpired that even the Panama waterfall clip was faked. As for who was in on the deceit, David Letterman wasn't; Phoenix's Hollywood agent was. Still, who knows how Hollywood will respond? Perhaps Phoenix really has destroyed his career. Time will tell. Meanwhile, it's a pretty safe bet that we won't hear him rapping again any time soon.

Also showing...

The Kid (100 mins, 15)

Following Nick Moran's effervescent directorial debut, Telstar, this stodgy adaptation of Kevin Lewis's misery memoir is a disappointment. It's the well-meaning but cliché-ridden story of an abused suburban boy who grows up to be a bare-knuckle boxer (Rupert Friend).

The Horde (90 mins, 18)

A French police squad has to team up with the gangsters it's hunting in order to escape from a rundown tower block infested by bloodthirsty cannibals. Yes, it's yet another zombie film, but it's one of the better ones, thanks to the visceral fight scenes, and a heroine who could take on Lara Croft and Ripley at the same time.

Just Wright (101 mins, PG)

Cinderella romance starring a bubbly Queen Latifah as a physiotherapist who is always cold-shouldered in favour of her beautiful best friend (Paula Patton). Yes, it's utterly predictable – but very sweet.

F (175 mins, 18)

Dull British horror film in which hoodies bump off the teachers and janitors working late in a school one evening.



Next week



Jonathan Romney gazes deep into Enter the Void, the latest delirium from provocateur Gaspar Noé

I'm Still Here is the subject of this week's Culture Club. Have you seen the film, and, if so, what did you think? Was Joaquin's sacrifice worth it? Leave your thoughts and comments below

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace was caught by a camera van driving 32mph over the speed limit

TV
Arts and Entertainment
books
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Outlaw Pete is based on an eight-minute ballad from Springsteen’s 2009 Working on a Dream album

books
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012

film
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
    Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
    Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

    Neil Lawson Baker interview

    ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

    ... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
    Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

    Europe's biggest steampunk convention

    Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

    The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor