REVIEW: ‘I’m Still Here’

Grade: B


For those who haven’t been following the odd story of Joaquin’s quest to become a rap artist and Affleck’s obscure documentary, I’m Still Here, here is the gist of it: About two years ago, coming off his Oscar nomination for Walk the Line and his last role in a film called Two Lovers, Casey Affleck decided to shoot a documentary on his brother-in-law, Joaquin Phoenix. Shortly afterwards Joaquin declared that he was retiring from acting to pursue a career in music. Rap music. Then he made this infamous appearance on Letterman. Since then, bloggers and news outlets have been going back and forth on the reality of this documentary, questioning its validity. After premiering and the Venice International Film Festival, Affleck finally admitted it was staged.

Well. I’m Still Here is not a good date movie. Not by a long shot. We see Joaquin Phoenix snort cocaine, vomit profusely, mess around with hookers, drop all hygiene, brags about his friends penis (which is shown several times), and there is a running joke about “shitting on your face.” We eventually get to see that happen as well. It is a grueling experience filled with awkward moments that were staged only in the sense that a few people actually knew what was going on. The film will make you laugh at the insanity of Phoenix’s phony transformation; but it also works as a tender study of stardom, falling from grace, and the emotional turbulence of losing your identity and being unable to find it again.

 “Hate me or like me, do NOT misunderstand me!”
-Joaquin Phoenix

This line is uttered by Joaquin as he struts around in his hoodie, his hair already taking its disturbing new personality. It is lines like this one that elevate the movie from mediocrity to self-awareness. The film has a sense of irony in two ways. First, in its repeated acknowledgement that people think it is a hoax. All the press stories are included in the film as is Joaquin’s fake reaction to these claims. Second, in lines like the one above he addresses his interest in being himself rather than being stuck playing false characters all the time. He is sick of the falsification. But we know now, thanks to this New York Times article and this Roger Ebert interview, that this film is in fact a falsification. It is very ironic. But it is also very philosophical. It begs the question of what actors actually do for a living and how stardom positively and negatively affects an individual.

The breakdown starts before he even officially quits acting. Although it is humorous to see his failed last acting job as some kind of a fundraiser. Once he does officially quit, by mumbling to a random reporter, everything continues downhill. The basic premise revolves around him trying to record with Sean Combs. But what the film is really about is the self-inflicted damage he procures along the way. Throughout the film, we see Phoenix destroys his public and private image; he loses his one close friend through paranoia about press leakage and makes a complete fool of himself on stage attempting to perform his music, which is pretty awful. I don’t think I could sit through this film if I thought there was any chance that it was real. It is a tragic story knowing that it is not real. But it helps to see it as a work of art rather than a tragic depiction of a great talent’s downfall.

I really do love what they have done here; it is a fascinating piece of work. But at some point I have to go into movie-critic mode and admit that this isn’t a great film. I found myself checking the time in the mid-section of the fairly-short run time and the quality of the film itself varies a lot from scene to scene. But there are great moments; including one sped up shot in the middle of the film, the brilliant, almost too brilliant, shot of Phoenix standing against a tan wall before his last disastrous performance, a shot of a young Joaquin jumping into the water that turns into a shot of the older Joaquin in the water, and finally the last shot of the film is a long tracking shot of Joaquin walking in a river until he is fully submerged.

 But a great film is made up of more than a few great moments. While the film is also accompanied by legitimate substance, this is a movie about something. It is just not always obvious what it is about. Furthermore, the movie is, in many cases, not enjoyable. Plenty of great films are similarly painful to watch, but this one lacks the eloquence or consistency to earn that title. It is made to look bad.

I’m Still Here is a very difficult film to review and an even harder one to assign a grade. I give the film a ‘B’ because that grade seems as good as any. The great stuff is truly great, but it is not a fun experience in the traditional sense of the word; and the fact that it could’ve been true, but isn’t, prevents much of the power of the story presented. Fictitious stories can be just as powerful true events; but this is influenced by its inspiration, reality T.V. and that limits its effectiveness.

Finally, it has to be said, Joaquin Phoenix does not deserve an Oscar or an Oscar nomination for this film. Nor will he get either. He and Casey Affleck should collectively be honored for this avant garde creation. This film is brilliant both in performance and concept. Creativity is where the film deserves recognition. But to put it lightly, this is no awards film.

Bottom Line: Now that the mystery is uncovered, we can see I’m Still Here for what it is. It is an ironic and original but hard to watch bit of performance art. If the news stories fascinated you, check it out, otherwise skip this one, it is very obscene.

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  • I may skip it. Don’t feel attracted to watch obscenity like that.

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