Review: I'm Still Here

I'm Still Here (2010, directed by Casey Affleck)

Once upon a time, Casey Affleck and Joaquin Phoenix were smoking a bowl together late at night, and bitching about all the asshole fans and journalists and hangers-on who thought they knew them:

"Man, they don't know shit. They think the guy they see on the red carpet or in that press conference is the real me, but, like, they don't know."

"Dude, like, totally. That's so... true, man."

"You know what would be awesome? We should make a movie where you pretend to be the guy they think you are!"

"Yeah. Yeah! It could be this, like, out there Andy Kaufman kind of thing."

"Yes! Oh man, that would be epic."

Now normally, when you bullshit about stuff at four in the morning while high, you wake up the next morning and either have forgotten all about it, or you have vague memories of what you were bullshitting and realize, in the cold light of day, how stupid it really was. But not Phoenix and Affleck, no sir. They actually went ahead and made the movie they thought was a good idea when they were high. And thus, I'm Still Here was born.

To answer the irrelevant question on everyone's lips, there's no doubt in my mind that the film is "fake", in the sense that this is a performance by Phoenix and not a meltdown. They named the production company They Are Going To **** You, for pity's sake. And there are too many situations and shots that would have required too much prep, too many blatantly staged moments, for it to be a true guerrilla-style doc.

But frankly, I don't really care whether it's "real" or not. I care whether it's entertaining. And on that front, I'm Still Here is a massive failure. I can forgive self-indulgence. I can't forgive boring self-indulgence, and that's what Phoenix's performance quickly becomes. It's the mockumentary equivalent of one of the those two minute SNL skits that gets stretched out to feature length without adding anything to the original idea. And one of the main criticisms I have of Phoenix's supposed self-destructive behavior here echoes one of my main problems with Phoenix's performance as Johnny Cash. It's too cliche, too by the book. He dresses weird, he does drugs, he goes on random tirades against his friends. Yawn. Phoenix was a fairly stereotypically tortured artist in Walk The Line, and he's a fairly stereotypically out-of-control rich brat here.

Beyond the flaws in the filmmaking and in the acting though, my biggest issue with the movie is how pointless it was. Instead of making a film spoofing other people's perceptions of him, Phoenix made a film spoofing his perception of other people's perceptions of him, and that house of cards collapses pretty quickly. Really, Phoenix's celebrity status was too bland heading into this role to work at either end of the satire spectrum. He wasn't Britney-level TMZ fodder (although the movie tries hard to sell him as such). No one paid much attention to who he dated or what his pet causes were. He was just another brooding actor staying mostly off the merry-go-round, so there really wasn't any public persona to target. On the flip side if he were, say, Kato Kaelin-level obscure, a mock doc about his career change and disintegration might have been a tragic commentary on the pursuit of celebrity.

Instead, he was stuck in the middle - that is, until he and Casey started this film. His Letterman appearance and other assorted public antics gave him cache he never had before. More people now care about Phoenix's next move than ever did before, when he was just another lower A-list serious actor who collects the occasional Oscar nom. The talk now is that he's destroyed his career, but that's absurd. If the likes of Tom Cruise can recover from their very real crackups, Phoenix will easily survive his fake one. As long as investors or studios make a bit of money from his projects he'll have a career, and there's no sign yet that he's box office poison.

The bottom line is that as a mockumentary, it flat doesn't work. It almost plays like Borat, if Borat were a drama.

As the culmination of a prolonged burst of self-promotion though, it's borderline genius.

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