SHORT TAKE: “I’m Still Here” (**1/2)

Posted by · 9:11 am · September 6th, 2010

Venice Film Festival

“This is the moment where the fucking good guy wins,” yells an evidently kite-high Joaquin Phoenix at a hapless member of his entourage, midway through his brother-in-law Casey Affleck’s debatable documentary portrait of the star’s much-publicized career meltdown.

It’s a little difficult to spot the victory – or, indeed, the good guy – in this and many other such tantrums that pepper “I’m Still Here”: the film can be interpreted in a number of ways, and Phoenix comes off pretty awfully in most of them. Is it all a hoax? More specifically, could Phoenix’s actions – his abrupt 2008 “retirement” from the screen, his intended hip-hop career, his bizarre new American-Apparel-rabbi look – all be an elaborate stunt, and the film somehow not?

Affleck was predictably unforthcoming in this morning’s press conference: “Elliptical” was his one-word answer when asked how he felt about the allegations of fakery, supported by certain scenes in the film that have obviously been (re)staged. (The closing credits feature a cast list in which not every player is billed as themselves.)

The most surprising discovery about “I’m Still Here” is that the possibility of it being a ruse doesn’t much diminish its value. Indeed, the film is probably more interesting viewed as an immensely committed, avant-garde performance piece by Phoenix (“career suicide as conceptual art,” to quote one critic I spoke to after the screening) than as an ingenuous documentary – in which case, for all Affleck’s claims of wishing to offer a compassionate study of his friend, the film is a rather narrow, and even exploitative, work.

In either light, Affleck has crafted a ragged but grimly compelling essay on our vile celebrity-news culture, in which the aggressors aren’t only the bottom-feeding journalists who delight in stories such as this one, but the celebrities – of whom Phoenix may well be one – who are spurred on by their attention. (It’s not every film where one gets to call P Diddy the voice of kindness and reason, but these are the times we live in.)

I’m not convinced that “I’m Still Here” is entirely smart or meta enough to be exempt from this tail-eating circle, but it’s inarguably a film of its era: should it find its way into a time capsule, future viewers will learn a lot more about us from watching it than they will about Joaquin Phoenix. They will, however, inevitably conclude that that Phoenix guy is a bit of an asshole: needy, combative, solipsistic and not terribly bright, the persona (affected or otherwise) he projects here is hard work to be around for an excessive 108 minutes, and this tiring one-note quality gradually seeps into the film itself.

The actor is so obnoxious in some scenes as to make you conclude he must be testing the camera; in others, notably a remarkable sequence following a failed Miami rap gig in which he attacks a crowd member and winds up puking his guts out backstage, he seems authentically, and rather frighteningly, out of control. If “I’m Still Here” really is a performance, it’s a bold and fully imagined one, and a reminder that Joaquin Phoenix is too useful a talent to be mismanaging himself quite so spectacularly.

[Image: Magnolia Pictures]

→ 8 Comments Tags: , , , , , | Filed in: Reviews

8 responses so far

  • 1 9-06-2010 at 11:38 am

    Leone said...

    Joaquin Phoenix is one of the finest actors we have alive today. I don’t know him well but I did work with him about 5 years ago on a film. He was kind, intelligent, shy, soft spoken and, yes, a little offbeat. I am always amazed at how quickly the media and the public want to build a celebrity up, only to rip them to shreds when given a chance to do so. Whether this is a hoax, a statement, a satire or a joke, I can only say that it doesn’t sound like the Joaquin Phoenix I met 5 years ago, and if he is literally melting down and his brother-in-law thinks it’s a worthy idea to film it, then the problem lies with his family, not him.

  • 2 9-06-2010 at 11:43 am

    Michael said...

    wow, 108 minutes long!?!?! maybe if this were a 75-80 min long film I would be a little bit more interested to just watch it but not for that long. This looks like a bad attempt to combine TMZ with F is for Fake or something, I just am not into it at all. Joaquin Phoenix had so much promise and talent, I just hope he doesn’t turn out like his brother. Your review was very well-written and I am just glad that I can hear about your take on the film instead of actually having to see it for myself and end up annoyed and bored for that long of a one-note idea.

  • 3 9-07-2010 at 4:22 am

    Michael W. said...

    I of course haven’t seen the film yet, but I am completely convinced that it is a real performance and not a meltdown.

  • 4 9-07-2010 at 1:41 pm

    Maxim said...

    “his bizarre new American-Apparel-rabbi look ”

    Lodge, ever consider when you wrote this that it may come off as offensive?

    And it’s funny how a lot of the adjectives you (unwisely) throw at Phoenix seem to describe you too (i.e. needy, combative and not terribly bright).

  • 5 9-07-2010 at 4:44 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    Offensive to whom — American Apparel, rabbis or Joaquin Phoenix? Or perhaps just to overly sensitive souls with no sense of irony whatsoever?

    Keep at it, Maxim — perhaps you’ll succeed in offending me one of these days.

  • 6 9-07-2010 at 10:43 pm

    Rob said...

    I’ve got to say, even the mixed and negative reviews make this sound fascinating to me. I’ll be there with bells on.

  • 7 9-08-2010 at 3:05 pm

    MovieMan said...

    I quite liked the film. If it’s a genuine documentary, it may be on thin ground, yes, but it’s still fascinating and compelling. It’s more effective, however, if it’s an elaborate con, and Joaquin Phoenix deserves every single accolade that he can possibly receive.

    I mean, it’s highly uneven and problematic, but it’s impossible not to admire the film for its convictions or its ambitions.

  • 8 9-10-2010 at 7:25 pm

    Chad Hartigan said...

    This movie is fantastic!