I’m Still Here is the directorial debut of Casey Affleck, star of the ill-timed Gone, Baby, Gone and controversial The Killer Insisde Me. As a first move from actor to filmmaker, I’m Still Here is both incredibly brave and shockingly misjudged.
The film is ostensibly a cinema verite take on the retirement of Joaquin Phoenix, picking up after the huge success of Walk the Line. We see Phoenix’s hedonistic lifestyle, his failing attempts to start a hip hop career, his alienation from his friends and finally a supposed catharsis.
The film is supposed to be a documentary account of Phoenix’s real life, but after watching the movie it becomes apparent that the whole thing is an act, Albeit one played out on a public stage. A fact confirmed by Affleck soon after the film’s release.
I think I’m Still Here was supposed to be a grand experiment. Phoenix created a character to act as his stand in, and played that role in public throughout the course of the film. As a piece of character acting it’s astounding, even taking his pretend persona onto the Letterman show and press appearances. This approach makes us question the role of actors, as well as taking a swipe at celbrity culture, but falls short of its lofty visions of holding the mirror up to us.
Despite whatever artistic merit it might want to posess, the end result is a hard to watch mess which just seems self indulgent. Rather than setting out to make a film with a point, it feels like the brothers-in-law are playing a joke on you and looking to make a quick buck out of filming it. I can only see two intentions behind making this movie, either as a serious film about actors and their private lives, or as a comedy.
The film fails on both fronts. Phoenix’s assumed persona is little more than an idiot, he plays a role which wouldn’t be outside of the ouvre of Jack Black. There are no moments of humanity to relate to, no tender beats to endear this invented version of Joaquin Phoenix to us. All we are left with is a fool acting up on camera, which would be fine if this was a comedy. It’s not. There are no laughs here, there’s no cringeworthy moments, in fact I can’t think of a time during the film when I felt anything but bewildered and bored.
All this leads to one final scene, without dialogue, of Phoenix walking up a stream until submerged, all the while scored by a lonely piano. At this point I was done with the film, and adding a faux meanignful moment at the end just smacked of a desperation to be taken seriously. We can’t be expected to feel empathy with a character suddenly, just because the film tells us to.
If this film had worked it could have been a game changer, instead it ends up being a character study of an unlikeable twerp, a high-concept Borat. Maybe this film could have had something to say about ‘real-life’ celebrity but it burns that bridge with sheer bloody-minded silliness. Doubtless Phoenix is a great actor, but this project was simply a waste of his time and yours.