Joaquin Phoenix is still here, but do we care?

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Last night we watched a preview screening of I'm Still Here, Casey Affleck's pseudo-documentary (pseudoc?) about his brother-in-law, the actor-turned-rapper Joaquin Phoenix. Much of the hype, and indeed much of the film, is concerned with whether or not it is a tragic observational portrait of a young man unravelling fast, or an elaborate hoax by two bored Hollywood hipsters. We're pretty sure it's the latter, but does that make the film more interesting, or less?

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If indeed it is an elaborate piece of performance art a la James Franco, it's fair to say that Affleck — and more importantly Phoenix — has done the groundwork. Having announced that he was retiring from film in 2008, the star of Walk The Line and Gladiator made a series of increasingly bizarre public appearances, from a terse guest spot on Letterman to a couple of unfortunate rap performances at Miami nightclubs, captured by a sea of camera phones. He grew a beard that would have been the envy of any hedge-dwelling tramp, which he coupled with taped-up sunglasses and a sizeable paunch. The dramatic changes in his physical appearance gained a satirical following of their own (you may remember Ben Stiller's get-up at the 2009 Oscars).

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Affleck's film uses these public displays of instability to pepper his intimate footage of Phoenix — or JP, as asks to be known — as he hangs out in his LA house and New York apartment, abusing his friends-cum-employees, smoking pot, snorting coke and being serviced by hookers. Phoenix, as he choses to portray himself, is entirely self-absorbed, self-important, out of control and blind to the privileges of his lifestyle (the private jets, the lackeys).

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A secondary storyline, gradually abandoned as Phoenix's supposed decline accelerates, involves JP pursuing Sean "Diddy" Combs, in the hope that he might produce his debut rap album (having already been turned down by Dr Dre and Rick Rubin). The scenes with Combs provide the comic highlights of the film — and it is, in many places, a funny movie — notably Combs' masterful dead-eyed stare into the camera lens as Phoenix plays him his demo.

The suggestion of fraudulence begin early. Firstly, you'd have to question why any half-decent brother-in-law would conduct such a wholehearted character assassination. Secondly, one of Phoenix's friends, Anton (Antony Langdon, formerly of the Leeds band Spacehog) supposedly "leaks" the news that the film is a spoof to an entertainment magazine — resulting in a confrontation that is both too neat, too sensationalist and too poorly acted. Anyone still in doubt by the end of the movie is treated to a credit sequence in which we learn that Phoenix's dad, who he goes to visit in Panama, is in fact played by Affleck's. In Hawaii.

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OK, so it's a joke. But what does it mean? Is it purely satire, a Spinal Tap-style character study of the narcissism of actors? Is it a exposé of the grim mechanics of the media, who snaffled up every morsel of weirdness Phoenix threw at them like a deranged truffle pig? And how can a line be drawn between reality and performance when Phoenix actually did all those humiliating red carpet interviews and PAs, and received the attendant flak, whatever his lofty artistic motives?

The question that reviewers are invited to ask, of course, is should the film be subject to different, or even tougher, criticial criteria if it is fiction rather than fact? Certainly, like its star, I'm Still Here is a little flabby round the middle — the Diddy episode, the rap performances, the public craziness, don't really go anywhere, and the film ends with a hammer-headed metaphor of Phoenix wading aimlessly threw a muddy swamp. But as a piece of skilled improvisation, a committed — to the point of career suicide — exploration of a character, and a display of pure tramp-haired gumption by one man, it's pretty hard to knock. Oh, and rumour has it Phoenix is in talks to reignite his acting career. The film is out on Friday. Make of that what you will.

I'm Still Here is out on 17 September