Self destruction on screen is often fascinating and hilarious to watch. The classic examples, most commonly in documentaries like Hearts of Darkness in which we see Francis Ford Coppola go through hell trying to make Apocalypse Now or in Herzog’s film My Best Fiend where we get an insight into the mad, aggressive meltdowns of collaborator Klaus Kinski. Now we have a similar kind of thing with I’m Still Here, in which Casey Affleck follows around his brother-in-law Joaquin Phoenix who has retired from acting (damn shame, talented actor) and moves onto to pursue a rap career. Essentially filmed over a year in a fly on the wall style, we follow Phoenix’s descent into what appears to be creative madness and depression. Most on screen meltdowns do find a perfect balance between fascination, humour and actually being quite painful but in a poignant way.
This is painful in a genuinely painful way and without the humour or the fascination, it is terrible. A lot of discussion has taken place, especially in premieres at festivals, as to whether or not Affleck’s film is an elaborately staged hoax. He denies this, saying that what we are watching is completely straight. I don’t believe him, everything about the film feels tawdry and fake, right down from the title to Phoenix who, although proved with Gladiator and Walk the Line he was a strong actor, isn’t convincing at all playing himself.
The film flips between on one hand being a man’s uphill struggle to redefine himself then inter spliced with Borat-Bruno sub Sacha Baron Cohen set pieces like snorting illegal substances off a prostitute, Phoenix defecating on his manager and his own rap performances (which are staggeringly awful). All of which undermine any sense of anyone taking anything seriously.
If it is hoax, then the scenes are not funny but if it isn’t then why would anyone want to watch this? The audience is limited to it anyway, Phoenix was never a Hollywood A-list star, and some may know Casey Affleck for some performances but are more likely to know brother Ben (who is actually a proper director in the making).
Further making it worse is the self indulgence. Unlike other documentaries which are based around one persona, whether it be Fog of War or Super Size Me or even some of Michael Moore’s films, I’m Still Here has nothing to say about its subject. It is a sad exercise in trying to showcase someone who is clearly unhappy with their career and who is trying to retrieve it from the toilet down which it was flushed with a narcissistic vanity project. The whole film seems to have come about because of infamous Letterman interview, the only part of the film I actually liked, and which they show in its near entirety.
In addition to that, the oblique title also seems to be pushing the fact that Joaquin Phoenix is someone mass audiences are interested in. It is designed for the niche audience of Joaquin Phoenix fans, and perhaps film buffs who may have mistaken the poster for the thinking that Stanley Kubrick had returned from the grave.
Moreover, the title is completely misleading in suggesting that Phoenix ‘is still here’ when it is evident from Affleck’s film that he is no longer of this planet, and is orbiting somewhere around Mars off his face on crack. Or at least this is the impression we gain from the film.
It’s also an interesting career path for Casey Affleck who seems to be following the footsteps of brother Ben: Ben first started off in acting and was followed by Casey, who actually proved he had considerably more skill than his older brother. Ben then moved into directing where it seems he found his niche directing two very good thrillers: Gone Baby Gone and The Town. Then oddly, Casey follows his brother again into directing. It’s almost as if he wants to remain in his brother’s shadow.
I also think that on a moral level it’s bankrupt, there is something kind of sleazy and voyeuristic about what we are seeing that does go beyond a level of acceptability. Show what you want in fiction but in documentaries like this some restraint and a bit of taste needs to be shown. Exacerbating this problem is the crumminess of the visual and audio which for all the world look and sound as if it was shot on an iPhone and is at times inaudible and unwatchable, it just feels a tad leery.
Had it been any good or had anything to say about the state of acting or the music industry it might be forgiven. As it is, the film is smug, self indulgent, badly put together and painful to watch and moreover, it is a waste of print about a person which nobody cares about. I’m Still Here, obviously referring to the only idiot left in the cinema watching this after all the sensible people leave and go next door to watch something else.
Note: This review was originally written before it was revealed that the film was a hoax and entirely faked.
I'm Still Here is incredibly self indulgent and pointless. As a piece it is not funny, and simply put, it's just painful to watch and offers very little.