Theatrical Review: I’M STILL HERE
Director: Casey Affleck
In the opening minutes of I’M STILL HERE, “subject” Joaquin Phoenix proclaims, “hate me or like me, just don’t misunderstand me.” I’M STILL HERE will do nothing to meet that demand. Focusing on the “lost year” of Phoenix’s life, as he quit acting and attempted to jumpstart a hip-hop career, the film has long been plagued by rumors doubting its veracity, particularly because the complete collapse of Phoenix’s life and sanity during its filming seemed so truly hard to believe. If the film is real, it’s a sad and mocking depiction of an ill man denying the demons killing him. If it’s fake, it’s a hilarious send-up of the Hollywood lifestyle that ends up being fantastically empty.
Real or fake? So much of I’M STILL HERE seems to be some sort of set-up – it is, at turns, somehow both too banal and too bizarre to be real. Phoenix’s assistant, Antony, lives in a sober house, yet has prescription bottles of bud lined up behind his bed. Phoenix wears old shirts on his head while berating Ben Stiller’s career choices. Phoenix, a.k.a. J.P. (his rap nom de plume), discusses a potential musical tour of “Vegas, Chicago, and Russia.” It is impossible to take seriously, which helps immensely when it comes to stomaching the worst of the film - full frontal nudity, copious drug use, homophobic and sexist slurs, body hair-cutting, psychotic paranoia, vomiting, the unsexiest sex acts on the planet, the list goes on and on. But it’s addictively watchable because it may be the best example of trainwreck cinema in years.
If you watched Phoenix’s downward spiral from the privacy of your own internet and television, much of this will be familiar. I’M STILL HERE uses whole chunks of some of the viral best of Phoenix’s year of idiocy – the first performance at the oddly-chosen Carbon nightclub in Culver City, the entire infamous Letterman interview, his second performance at LIV nightclub in Miami where he attacked an audience member. And it’s these large inclusions that perhaps illuminate the only real substance of the film. Phoenix’s mental collapse immediately after the Letterman interview is the most intimate scene of the entire affair – if it’s real, it’s the only time we really see Phoenix and what his life has amounted to, through his eyes.
But for anyone looking for some heavy truths, for Phoenix to comment on the demise of his famous brother, River, or to find out just why on God’s green earth “J.P.” picked hip-hop as his true creative outlet, none of that is here. There are absolutely no answers in I’M STILL HERE. The brief moments of insight into Phoenix come too late – by the more melancholy second half of the film, audiences will most likely have checked out completely (or even fallen asleep, as at least two audience members did in my press screening) or stopped paying attention to anything that doesn’t smack of rough humor.
On a purely cinematic basis, the film succeeds in feeling “real” because it’s so easy to forget the camera is there, mainly because Casey Affleck doesn’t leave any sort of mark whatsoever on the unfolding Joqauin Show. He lackadaisically injects filmic elements to the project, as if temporarily awoken from some sort of horror-induced coma to remember “Hey! This is a film! I think! I am directing it! Maybe!” The film sticks to a completely linear structure, save for one flashback that seems nothing short of rote and requisite. The camerawork is better than you would expect from handhelds, but when attempts are made at using it as comment on its own subject matter (see: a hyper sped-up sequence meant to reflect on the feeling of a drugged up night), it sticks out awkwardly.
There is a parade of cameos in the film – Sean Penn, Edward James Olmos, Ben Stiller, Diddy – and it’s hard to tell who is in on the joke and who isn’t. Stiller seems ruffled, and Olmos pops up to serve as some sort of nonsensically motivated spirit guide for Phoenix (water droplets, man, water droplets). Diddy may be the most essential supporting character in the entire sham (certainly, Phoenix’s posse of idiots serve no purpose), and his reaction to hearing J.P.’s jams in studio might be the most authentic portion of I’M STILL HERE.
The attempts at profundity, particularly the last five or so minutes of the film, are unshakably weak, and so cloying that they end up just being funny. But, by the end of I’M STILL HERE, we are no longer laughing with Phoenix – we are laughing at him, and we continue to completely misunderstand the man and whatever he is (fraudulently) trying to accomplish. Is he still here? Here is gone, man. There is no here here.