This weekend sees the release of The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, the very amusing, incredibly meta comedy in which Nicolas Cage plays himself. Of course, he’s not really playing himself — whether it’s John Malkovich in Being John Malkovich or LeBron James in Trainwreck, we’ve gotten used to how these fictionalized self-portraits work. Normally, the famous person does an exaggerated, often satirical version of themselves, perhaps playing into an assumption that the public has about them — or, in the case of James, subverting expectations and being a totally endearing nerd who’s really into Downton Abbey.
And indeed, the Cage we see in Massive Talent is a super-intense actor’s actor who’s got money troubles — in other words, what we figure the real Nicolas Cage is like. In the film, the Oscar-winner gets to spoof his image while leaning into all the reasons his fans worship his turned-up-to-11 performances. If you weren’t already on his bandwagon before Massive Talent, you may be more inclined after seeing the movie.
Massive Talent is delightful enough, but it’ll never top the most fascinating, divisive “celebrity playing himself” movie ever made. Twelve years ago, I’m Still Here wasn’t positioned as a meta comedy but, rather, a documentary chronicling Joaquin Phoenix’s retirement from acting to pursue his true passion: rap. His hair grown long, his face hidden behind shades and an unruly beard, Phoenix seemed to be going through an existential crisis, and director (and brother-in-law) Casey Affleck was there to record each moment of his downward spiral. Only later, although it had been secretly suspected for a while, did it come out that I’m Still Here was all a put-on. As such, it’s a meta comedy that’s so meta that it actually wants you to think it’s real. That Phoenix’s career ever recovered remains remarkable.
In 2008, Phoenix seemed to be in a good place. He’d been twice nominated for an Oscar — including for Best Actor for 2005’s Walk the Line, which won him a Golden Globe — and had been in hits like Signs. But that October, during a night where he performed on stage alongside Julia Roberts, Tom Hanks, Bruce Willis and others in a production of The World of Nick Adams, he shocked the world by telling an Extra reporter, “I want to take this opportunity … to give you the exclusive and just talk a little bit about the fact that this will be my last performance as an actor. I’m not doing films any more.”
Phoenix has always had a reputation for being a shy soul who’s uncomfortable in the spotlight. So his announcement that he was quitting, although surprising, didn’t come entirely out of the blue. But what did throw people was his proclamation that he was leaving acting to become a rapper. Almost immediately, some wondered if this career change was a hoax, but Phoenix kept insisting it wasn’t. “Might I be ridiculous? Might my career in music be laughable? Yeah, that’s possible,” he allowed, “but that’s certainly not my intention.” He even did an impromptu set at a Vegas club in early 2009 to prove how serious he was. Unfortunately, he mostly just embarrassed himself, seeming drunk as he unconvincingly spit out some bars, eventually falling off the stage.
The clip was posted on YouTube, with the user writing, “Hopefully, this is all a joke…but he hasn’t admitted yet!” Suspicion grew when Entertainment Weekly ran a piece in which it spoke to “two people close to Joaquin Phoenix,” who insinuated that the whole rap thing was a goof. (“[Phoenix] said, ‘It’s a put-on. I’m going to pretend to have a meltdown and change careers, and Casey is going to film it,’” one of those sources told the magazine.) But when The Hollywood Reporter broke the news that same month that Casey Affleck, who was married to Phoenix’s sister Summer, would direct a documentary about Phoenix’s pivot to hip hop, the trade paper treated it seriously, noting that Puff Daddy was going to be producing the fledgling rapper’s debut album. No matter how many people didn’t believe them, Phoenix and Affleck committed to the bit that Phoenix had left acting behind.
You probably know what happened next. In February, Phoenix went on Late Show to promote Two Lovers, an excellent film in which he plays a troubled young man in a romantic triangle with Gwyneth Paltrow and Vinessa Shaw. But because Phoenix was still very much “in character,” he walked onto David Letterman’s show as a bearded weirdo, barely answering the host’s questions and coming across as nervous and irritable.
Two Lovers filmmaker James Gray, who’s worked with Phoenix several times, including after the Letterman fiasco, later said, “I was upset. Nobody remembers it was for Two Lovers. They remember the shtick. … It is what it is, and we never talked about it. I decided to just move on.” But the world certainly didn’t let it go, with some observers wondering if there was something genuinely wrong with Phoenix. Maybe it wasn’t a hoax but, instead, an indication of a mental breakdown. And if it was a hoax, then it was quickly becoming an increasingly tedious one. Letterman’s cutting parting shot, “Joaquin, I’m sorry you couldn’t be here tonight,” summed up most people’s attitude: This self-absorbed jerk seemed more trouble than he was worth.
In the fall of 2010, the world finally got to see the “documentary” that Affleck and Phoenix had been working on, I’m Still Here, which purported to be a realistic look at the actor-turned-rapper’s challenges being accepted as a musician. Eventually, though, the two men had to come clean, admitting what many had assumed. “I never intended to trick anybody,” Affleck told the New York Times. “The idea of a quote, hoax, unquote, never entered my mind.”
Not surprisingly, I’m Still Here was viewed fairly hostilely when it opened in September of that year. Critics savaged it, and viewers largely stayed away. Affleck’s friend and occasional collaborator Matt Damon, who’d tried to talk his buddy into owning up to the film’s meta conceit sooner, probably put it as well as anyone when he said, “The release was too clever by half — you have to tell [the public] that it’s a joke because they will not forgive you if they’re not in on the joke. If they don’t know whether it’s a joke, they will not forgive you, and they will savage your movie. But he’s like, ‘I’m going to keep saying it’s not a joke, and then I’m going to tell them.’ But you don’t get two chances to put a movie out; you get one chance.”
I’m Still Here isn’t great — it’s terribly indulgent, repetitive and occasionally juvenile — but what remains stunning is how much Phoenix invests in the role of Joaquin Phoenix, Aspiring Rapper. Whether in interviews with journalists, who don’t appear to be in on the joke, or hanging out with Puff Daddy, who does, Phoenix is superb playing an artist so convinced of his depth and greatness that he’s comically unaware of what a putz he is. Anyone predisposed to dislike Phoenix would be forgiven for thinking that I’m Still Here was just a feature-length self-own, but there’s actually something far more interesting and incisive going on here.
We’ve become accustomed to celebrities portraying themselves on something like Curb Your Enthusiasm, reveling in being pseudo-assholes while coyly referencing the public’s assumption that most famous people are secretly awful. Phoenix does something different in I’m Still Here. The “Joaquin Phoenix” we see is often an immature asshole — especially when he’s doing drugs and ordering hookers — but there’s no winking to the camera, no attempt to make us think that he’s “only playing a character.” Where most “celebrity playing himself” movies want to assure us that we should go on liking the celebrity — that the meanie act is just for fun — Phoenix doesn’t create that distance in I’m Still Here. In Phoenix’s best films — The Master, Two Lovers, You Were Never Really Here — he feels so deeply, awkwardly real that there’s no separation between you and the person he’s embodying. No wonder so many viewers were repelled by I’m Still Here: Phoenix wanted you to hate that guy on screen.
Only in retrospect was it apparent just how meta the film was — and how much it wanted to bash the Phoenix character. In I’m Still Here, Ben Stiller shows up to talk to Phoenix about doing a part in Greenberg, leading to a contentious interaction — later, we see Stiller at the 2009 Oscars, where he presented an award dressed as Phoenix, mocking the actor’s incoherent Letterman appearance. The Stiller scene in I’m Still Here was actually filmed after the Oscars. (Affleck and Phoenix successfully pitched Stiller on the idea of creating a reason why Stiller had decided to make fun of Phoenix during the ceremony.) Watching I’m Still Here now, the movie plays like a half-formed satire about the stupidity of actors thinking they can easily jump into another art form and be just as successful — but it’s also weirdly honest about how vulnerable it is to put yourself out into the world by creating something. As much of a fool as “Joaquin Phoenix” is in I’m Still Here, the actor’s usual soulfulness and fragility are there, too. You’re not sure if his character is having a breakdown, but you’re definitely worried about the guy.
It took a few years for Phoenix’s career to rebound, but soon he was earning an Oscar nomination for The Master, kickstarting a series of excellent performances. (Full disclosure: I think Joker is great and that he’s great in it.) I’m Still Here is now viewed as a strange curiosity, a dumb misfire best forgotten. (If anything, it’s remembered for the sexual-harrasment allegations leveled against Affleck by the film’s cinematographer, Magdalena Gorka, and by producer Amanda White — accusations that didn’t keep him from winning Best Actor a few years later for Manchester by the Sea.)
As time went by, Phoenix lamented that audiences had thought I’m Still Here was supposed to trick them into thinking it was real. “That wasn’t our intention for people to take it personally,” he said in 2013. “We weren’t, like, keeping things hidden because we were going home and laughing at people. It was about the people we know and the people we’ve experienced. Suddenly the story was, ‘Was it real or was it not?’ It was unfortunate that people took it personally. We thought that the only person who looked really bad in this movie was me.”
If I’m Still Here was better, it would be easier to defend. But with The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent now out, it’s funny to think how, in some small ways, both films are about our perception of famously eccentric actors — and how they deal with the perceptions we have about them. In Massive Talent, Cage goes for lovable oddball, crafting a sympathetic portrayal that humanizes his quirky persona. In I’m Still Here, Phoenix did the opposite, doubling down on the ego and arrogance we all assume suffuses Hollywood. Most “celebrity playing himself” films want you to know celebrities aren’t so bad — I’m Still Here suggested that they’re even worse than you could possibly imagine.