Fame is an awful, ugly thing. Obviously, I know my fair share of famous people. Nearly all of them resent this unavoidable byproduct that comes whenever an innocent fool follows their artistic dreams.
Around the time of I'm Still Here (aka I'm Not There, aka I'm Still Not There, aka This Must be the Place, aka This Might Not be the Place, aka I'm Still not There at the Place), Joaquin Phoenix (pronounced Jow-KWIN) knew this more than anyone because he was more famous than anyone. For many years, Phoenix's star had risen in Hollywood as an emotionally vulnerable and often feral supporting character. Then he portrayed Johnny Cash right around the time Johnny Cash died and the resulting film won Joaquin more fame than anyone had ever seen before. He was more famous than The Beatles (who were famously more famous than Jesus, (but not Mohammad!)).
Once Joaquin became super famous, he found it just wasn't worth it and decided to quit acting to become a rapper instead. Now, he said he wanted to quit acting, but he didn't want to quit being in films, so he hired me to make a documentary about his journey starring lots of other actors dressed up like him.
I'm Still Here begins with Joaquin as a young child, jumping off cliffs and learning how to be an actor. This Joaquin is played by a young black actor (Marcus Carl Franklin) because I wanted to link his childhood with his later decision to make hiphop music.
Once Joaquin grows up a little he starts reading poetry and being a sardonic smartass. This Joaquin resembles the old Joaquin we know and love but at a point during which we do not yet know or love him. So he's played by an unknown actor named Ben Wishaw. We don't stay with him long because the gimmick only really entertains with name actors or black kids.
Soon enough we look at Phoenix's first real films which helped create his persona and define his image. This Phoenix is played by Christian Bale. After a while, however, Phoenix starts to divert from this persona and challenge his fanbase by throwing his punk rock personal aesthetic out the window in favor of Hollywood suits and A-list luxury. This Phoenix is played by Kate Blanchett.
After being Kate Blanchett for a while and doing all the stuff we know Joaquin for (Blanchett in Gladiator, Blanchett in Signs, Blanchett playing Johnny Cash), Joaquin decides to quit the movie business. From this moment on, he switches to "Joaquin Phoenix" a drug addled, dirty, and unkempt ragman with a face made of hair. This Phoenix is played by Heath Ledger, and it is with this iteration of the actor that I'm Still Here spends the most time.
Phoenix basically doesn't want to act anymore because by being a public person he must daily play the role of "Joaquin Phoenix" along with whatever Roman emperor or ex-baseball player he portrays during his day job. Being a free spirit type, Phoenix resents this additional role and refuses to just lay down and be himself according to how others define that self based on the way he initially defined that self to run away from another self. So he goes out of his way to invent a new self, completely unrecognizable from the Phoenix we know.
This Phoenix doesn't just look really different. He acts different as well. This new persona is a true asshole. Phoenix yells and screams expletives and punishes all those around him with horrible farts. Because of all the weight he's gained and endless cigarettes he smokes, he can no longer breath through his nose. Half the soundtrack of this film is his sick panting while doing strenuous activities like speaking on the phone. He also poops a lot more than he used to. Sometimes he barfs just for the fun of it. Everywhere he goes, he makes people look at his assistant's penis. Furthermore, while the real Joaquin Phoenix was famous for his animal rights activism and vegetarian diet, this Phoenix not only eats tons of bacon but actually rapes the pigs before slitting their throats and bathing in their bloodsprays.
The cornerstone of all this change, however, is Joaquin's budding rap career. You might think we'd hire another black actor for these scenes, but that would miss the point. This persona is meant to illustrate the horrific lengths actors will travel to shed their awful fame. Actually being good at rapping would only threaten to make Joaquin famous again. So we needed the worst, most awkward rapper possible. Therefore, this sub-persona is played by Richard Gere.
We see this Joaquin play a couple of shows, most of which end in disaster. We also see him recording at home. Then we see him play a demo for Puff Daddy, also hiding from fame, to embarrassing results. The music is awful, but we have to listen to it over and over again. I'm Still Here is in all possible ways the opposite of That Thing You Do!
Pretty soon, however, we run out of crazy things to show Joaquin doing. After his disastrous David Letterman appearance, we'd kind of blown our load. The film meanders for the next 20 minutes or so before the big finish in which Joaquin walks deeper and deeper into water until submerged. The weight of his facial hair makes it too hard to stand up again and Joaquin drowns. We call it a suicide but who knows?
This leads to the end credits sequence where fans and news programs mourn the loss of both this particular Joaquin Phoenix persona and Heath Ledger, the actor portraying him when he drowned. It's all a very heartbreaking damning of fame.
After the credits finish rolling, we have a kind of Marvel-esque post-credit sequence in which Joaquin (this time played by Kathy Bates) flies up to Heaven like an angel where no one knows who he is and he never has to sign autographs. It's a fitting, peaceful end to a real sweetheart.