I’m Still Here is the kind of film that builds on levels beyond whatever it might actually accomplish, which in this day and age isn’t necessarily a bad thing (see the Saw and Hostel franchise and just about everything Christopher Nolan has done since Memento) but an observation worth mentioning. The hype was clearly over the top in the beginning, the sensationalized headlines and panic-stricken talk show hosts searching for the joke when they were in and of themselves the butt the filmmakers were directing their social commentary disguised as a film at. Once the trailer was assembled, and the trailer was quite brilliant actually, the masses couldn’t get enough as the pea began a slow and steady descent down the mountain towards an inevitable, and dare we say unsatisfying collision with reality. It was apparent a lot of people were interested in whether or not one of Hollywood’s A-list talents was actually turning in his good looks for a chance at fame and fortune ala the Hip Hop product machine. With cameo’s from a handful of friends and what appeared to be surprised talent (re: Danny Glover looked like a guy on Cops with a camera in his face trying to explain why a man dressed like a woman pretending to be a man was in his car at two in the morning) the familiar stars never quite seemed in on the whole documentary film thing.
You might be asking yourself after reading my review why I would suggest that you see this film. I guess my bet answer would be because there is no truthful way to have a discussion about it without first sitting through it. You might not make it all the way through, you might press the FFW button or jump from one chapter to the next until you reach the joyful end but nevertheless this is one of those rare films that as much as it fails it requires a viewing; unless of course you’re not much for conversations about cinema or those wacky lot in the hills of Los Angeles. For those folks, you might consider another film for your evening escape.
Perhaps most problematic about the film is that the movie lacks a cohesiveness that uses drug and alcohol fueled tirades by Phoenix about art and Hollywood, about commerce and creativity to populate otherwise uninteresting hotel rooms and guest houses; I almost half expected to see Roman Polanski appear ala Chinatown in a Fedora looking for a way out as Joaquin tried in vain to convince him to join them for a chat along chain link fence spotted with Warhol-esque screen prints. Not even the hooker’s slash prostitutes slash professional escorts looked real enough to convince even the most inept viewer that what we were watching was indeed a real account of a celebrity gone completely insane. Had this been real, had the accounts actually have happened and the freshman attempt by Casey Affleck amounted to an actual expose into the inner workings of a celebrity gone awry, the film might have mattered; hell, it might have won some awards or garnered critical scrutiny of the calamity of the world of the rich and talented. In its place is a muddled attempt at examination in the back of limousines and airplanes and record studios made to look like record studios no one actually spends time in. I’m Still Here is in all accounts a shambles of moments, at best a half-hearted attempt at something unique and different, at worst further evidence that a video camera is a dangerous weapon in the hands of someone who has no idea which way to point it much less what the flashing red light means.
It matters little that the film is defined as a documentary or less that what we are lead to believe is that Casey Affleck, who is married to Joaquin’s sister Summer, just happened to be at all the right places and times to capture Joaquin’s slow, painfully exhaustive decline into actor-hell. What is important is that people have gone on the record that the film is legitimate, that the message is clear: “I (Joaquin Phoenix) am not going to act anymore.” Maybe this would matter more if he had some ailment, a condition if you will, like Patrick Swayze or Michael Landon back in the day, and that his days were quite literally numbered and there was no pretense or bullshit and in so many hours, days, or months he would quite literally be taken off the playing field for good. I’m not suggesting a slow and agonizing death is any more relevant or newsworthy than a simple, methodical detachment from one’s senses. Instead I believe we’re lead by the nose from one failed meeting to the next. His hoax of a rap career plays out in vivid detail and for far too long. When confronted by a rowdy and rightfully critical critic of his mumbling, stumbling efforts to sing or perform or do whatever it is he was trying to do, he jumps into the audience in front of a bunch of people who have already had too much Red Bull and cheap vodka. In the end Joaquin the movie star has been replaced by Joaquin the vagabond wayfaring soul, the bushy, ragged man with the dark glasses and the very real consumption of as much drugs, alcohol and excess as can be captured via video camera at all hours, at all places, even when shooting video of your drunk best buddy and technically family member is making a giant ass of himself.
If the intent all along was to document the decline of a movie star I can understand the willingness on both the filmmaker and his subject to let the camera run where it would, but if the intent was to deceive, to manufacture and present for artistic merit or otherwise a fictionalized diatribe that is mostly forgettable, I must surely protest. Aside from the defecation scene and maybe the part where Joaquin shows up to see Sean Combs, a.k.a diddy, a.k.a p-diddy, a.k.a puff-daddy, or whatever, the film is strewn with confetti-shaped seconds of video everyone has captured of themselves or others but clearly understand it is not meant for general consumption. Yet there is something oddly compelling about the idea of this film, a chance “behind the scenes” which is most likely what Affleck and others thought would be appealing about it. Genuinely you almost have to watch the film because no one, not even Roger Ebert is going to convince you otherwise. Even your best friend who you trust and love couldn’t talk you out of watching this massacre of the senses. This is an experience that must be had first hand; even if said experience must be expunged like a juvenile criminal record, later, once the Red Bull and vodka have worn off.
As Mr. Ebert puts it the film, “documents a train wreck.” The only real question is to authenticity but even then why should we care if Mr. Phoenix is still here? Where is here? I can assure you it isn’t the here of you or I nor is it the here that we’re accustomed to, teenagers and early twenty somethings perhaps not withstanding. We’ve all stumbled down dark, dank paths once or twice in our life but how do these adventures inform who we are and better yet, who we want other people to think we are? There are no cameras following our missteps nor should there be. Missteps are what little people make frequently and often at the expense of others who are family and friends and loved ones who aren’t supposed to mind, even when they can’t stomach the smell of freshly shat diapers. Missteps are not important to the teeming masses, though the paparazzi feed on every trip and fall, because the fan base only wants to catch a tiny glimpse of the man they saw in all those films they love and hope, somehow, he’ll notice them in the crowd and smile and maybe shake their hand.
This film isn’t about vanity or narcissism any more than it is an account of reality. This is the kind of reality we were introduced to in the MTV series The Real World back in 1992. Remember how they gathered all these antagonistic personalities and put them up in some million dollar mansion where they didn’t have to work or pay rent or buy groceries and that allowed them to claw at one another’s gut strands, to pick apart their idiosyncrasies and personality hiccups? If I’m Still Here is simply an extension of the reality world rip-off concept, we’ve all been there just not to this degree. I had high hopes. I had wanted to see some of the scales come off of the glinting, shiny armor of one of Hollywood’s brightest stars and what I ended up with was a cold plate of linguine with white sauce and anchovies and I hate anchovies.
As Roger Ebert wrote so convincingly in his review of the movie, “Note: Regarding the film’s 3-str rating: It could be one, it could be four. What do stars have to do with it?”
But if you just can’t leave this film alone, or the idea of it, here’s a link to more. Much more.