I'm Still Here
By Carl Kozlowski
September 10, 2010
As the famous saying goes, “Pride goeth before the fall.” And perhaps there’s no moment of greater pride in the world of entertainment than winning an Oscar—a fact that Joaquin Phoenix knows all too well after scoring a gold statue for his brilliant performance as Johnny Cash in Walk the Line.
But with the new film I’m Still Here, which was shot by his brother-in-law and fellow actor Casey Affleck in the two years following his big win, Phoenix appears to show that fame has an incredibly destructive and debilitating side as well. Or does he?
That central question—whether I’m Still Here is a straight documentary of an acclaimed movie star’s debilitating fall from grace, or if it’s a fake documentary shooting humorously poisoned darts straight at the heart of Hollywood—has been debated in Tinseltown and via gossip outlets for the past two years. The reason is that Affleck followed Phoenix around with a camera as he appeared to declare his retirement from acting due to artistic dissatisfaction and the pressures of fame, and instead embarked on a bizarre attempt at a rap career.
Perhaps the most infamous moment of Phoenix’s exploits during that time occurred when he appeared on David Letterman's Late Show to plug his art-house film Two Lovers, and proceeded to mumble one- or two-word answers while hiding behind shades, and unkempt hair and beard worthy of the Unabomber (see video to the right). The incident caused many to wonder if Phoenix had lost his marbles, or if it was a brilliant ruse with Letterman in on the joke.
I’m Still Here offers plenty of other cringeworthy moments, many of which far surpass the Letterman incident. Along the way, Phoenix inarticulately spouts off the f-word about 6 million times in various combinations, is seen gleefully snorting coke and even ordering a pair of prostitutes online with some shockingly misogynistic comments along the way.
He stumbles into and out of encounters with the likes of Ben Stiller, Edward James Olmos and P. Diddy (or is it Diddy? Or back to Puff Daddy? Mr. Combs?—even Phoenix doesn’t seem to know in one of the film’s funniest scenes). He also has a male friend who for no apparent reason is shown getting out of a tub and then dancing around fully naked, with nothing left to the imagination.
SPOILER ALERT: Because I’m Still Here is hardly playing in any cities and is unlikely to expand to any sort of wide release, I’ll spill the beans on what I think about about the movie and whether it’s real or not. The end credits say “written and directed by Casey Affleck and Joaquin Phoenix,” while the people shown are listed as “Cast” and a couple of them are not listed as being themselves. Therefore, it can’t be real.
On the other hand, it is shot so realistically that the idea of it being staged actually adds some level of brilliance to what otherwise would be an often-pointless or unpleasant exercise. This really looks like a home movie, which means the camera is often bouncy and sometimes even goes out of focus for a moment, and it’s played so deadpan that the biggest laughs come sporadically while watching.
Add it up, and it really is baffling to consider who this movie was made for. It’s certainly audacious and graphic, and perhaps even an indictment of excessive movie-star behavior and the Hollywood machine that fuels and perpetuates it. And its title seems to be a reference to another odd, but distinctly fictional, film about Bob Dylan from a couple years back: I’m Not There.
All told, even as it’s alternately funny and disconcerting, I'm Still Here is a bold piece of work in its own way. He put himself out there, against all possible conventional wisdom. But save it for Netflix, and only if you’re really curious to see just what the heck Phoenix was up to during those years in the wilderness (which he may still be in—he doesn’t seem to have any other projects lined up, and this might kill any attempts to do one). Just take the R-rating seriously—even if, in the end, it’s a commentary on excess, it still goes through a lot of excess to get there.