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I'm Still Here
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by Collin Souter

"I'm Not There"
2 stars

How does one review a movie that could very well be a piece of an elaborate hoax, particularly one that wants to be seen as a documentary? Joaquin Phoenix’s public breakdown has been famously well-documented, parodied and called into question long before the release of this film. Is this the “proof” of how completely out of it he really was or is this filmmaker Casey Affleck finally coming clean as if to say “you didn’t really believe he was serious, did you”? All we can do is wait for one of them to finally come clean. To this reviewer, however, the whole thing is a hoax, pure and simple.

The frustrating thing is that it’s not even an interesting or ground-breaking kind of hoax. The comparisons to Andy Kaufman’s public taunting of wrester Jerry Lawler are inevitable. Kaufman wanted to give up acting to become a wrestler (not just any wrestler either, but the “bad guy” wrestler). Almost everyone bought it, but collaborator Bob Zmuda set us all straight a couple decades later. Phoenix’s own Bob Zmuda, his brother-in-law Casey Affleck, who serves as the “documentarian” here, will also have a lot of explaining to do. If this is a prank, just what is the point? Is there a statement to be made here about the excess of celebrity? The foolishness of it? Could it be seen as a cautionary tale against actors who suddenly want to put out bad rock albums (notice the deep, meaningful hug he gives to Bruce Willis)?

Let’s assume it’s real, just for a moment. I’m Still Here runs about 107 minutes and in that time period, we learn nothing about Phoenix except that he was once a gifted actor and now he wants to throw that away and become a rap star. Affleck agreed to document the transformation. We watch as Phoenix belittles all of his 24-hour paid assistants, stops showering and shaving, vomits after doing one song at a concert (his music makes Hoffman and Beatty’s Ishtar songs sound like soulful hymns) and snorts coke while partying with hookers. There is also the now infamous Letterman appearance, seen here in its entirety.

He tries desperately to get any prominent hip-hop artist to take him seriously enough to want to produce his first rap album. The only one who will even make time to sit with him is Sean “P Diddy” Combs, who ends up being the only voice of reason in the entire endeavor (that’s a problem). He sets Phoenix straight on the realities of producing an album. He’ll need engineers, assistants and more producers to come in and Phoenix will have to pay them. It’s always something.

It is after the Letterman appearance where Phoenix begins to finally unravel and see what a huge mistake he has made. He will never be able to act in anything again. His music will never be taken seriously and it will only be a matter of time before his lifestyle renders him completely broke. Where else can he go, but back home?

So. If this is a real documentary, what is the point? Affleck seems to have no capacity for compassion for this character, even though he is family (Casey married Phoenix’s sister, Summer). The movie feels largely exploitative. It meanders from one excruciating episode to the next with no direction. Nobody testifies in Phoenix’s defense or gives us any clear viewpoint on who this troubled person really is or why we should care about him. He certainly is a hateful SOB.

This is why the math does not add up. Casey Affleck and Joaquin Phoenix are both smart, talented individuals who have been in great films and who have smart and talented people around them to give them good council. A bad career move and a bad faux-documentary about a bad career move do not occur in a vacuum. Somebody had to have had the idea that this would be funny and interesting experiment and the other person had to have agreed.

So, again, how does one review this movie without reviewing the hoax around it? As a moviegoing experience, I will admit that I’m Still Here has a perverse watchability to it, but at the same time, the shtick gets awfully tiresome. The camerawork and sound is barely the work of an amateur, let alone a professional. If the movie’s final shot is meant to somehow encapsulate the theme drowning in one’s own excess, the statement is mooted by everything that preceded it, since none of it is actually real. As far as I can see, Phoenix has created perhaps the most self-indulgent form of cinematic self expression since The Brown Bunny. If it’s real, Casey Affleck still has a lot of explaining to do.

Author's note: Since the publication of this review, Casey Affleck has come clean saying the film is indeed all fake. This does not make it a better film as far as I can tell, but it will certainly make for an interesting footnote--for better or for worse--in Phoenix's career. As for Affleck, I hope he too returns to acting and thinks twice before indulging in any kind of vague post-modernist artistic statement that is most likely 20 years too late.

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originally posted: 09/13/10 01:26:34
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User Comments

1/04/11 penisslicer Collin is spot-on. For such an elaborate hoax, it shows little humor or message 2 stars
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  10-Sep-2010 (R)
  DVD: 23-Nov-2010


  DVD: 23-Nov-2010

Directed by
  Casey Affleck

Written by

  Joaquin Phoenix

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