Sunday, September 12, 2010

Review - I'm Still Here

Is I'm Still Here real or is it a hoax? After viewing Casey Affleck's 'documentary' on his brother-in-law Joaquin Phoenix's year of living strangely, I'm leaning towards the latter explanation, but perhaps a more pertinent question is, why does this film exist at all? If it is the real thing, and Phoenix really is cracking up in front of our eyes, then why did he agree to let Affleck film every stage of his breakdown? How does Affleck's wife Summer Phoenix feel about her husband exploiting her brother in this way? What exactly is to be gained from us watching it? If we agree that the whole thing has been some elaborate stunt then you have to marvel at Phoenix's Andy Kaufman-like immersion in a loathsome character – but to what purpose? It's unclear who or what exactly Affleck and Phoenix are targeting with I'm Still Here, and whether they're sending up Phoenix's image, our fascination with celebrities or the showbiz lifestyle he seems so desperate to escape from.

Whatever the truth behind the project is, I'm Still Here (which I keep typing as I'm Not There) is ugly, aggravating and boring, and any fascination the film has in its early stages is exhausted long before we watch someone take a shit on Phoenix's head, or see the wayward star vomit violently into a toilet. For most of us, all we've seen of Phoenix's eccentric behaviour has been his notorious appearance on the Dave Letterman show, where he reacted badly to the host's gags at his expense and incoherently mumbled his way through an excruciatingly embarrassing piece of television. I'm Still Here lets us see more than that, much more. We see Phoenix snorting coke and having sex with prostitutes, hurling abuse at his assistant (the frequently naked Antony Langdon), writing and performing terrible hip-hop records, and climbing into a tree in Central Park before breaking down in tears.

There are a number of starry cameos too, although it's unclear how in on the joke these participants are. Ben Stiller turns up to offer Phoenix the role of Ivan in Greenberg, provoking him into rant about how Stiller thought it was funny to put a "cat" in a full body cast in There's Something About Mary, with this sequence suggesting that there may have been some malice in Stiller's Joaquin impersonation at the following year's Oscars. The best scenes in the film involve Sean 'P Diddy' Combs, whose deadpan reaction to the terrible samples Phoenix plays for him at an audition is priceless (if he's acting, it's a fine comic performance), but such amusing moments are rare. Most of the time, Affleck just lets his camera run on as Phoenix raves and shouts, which grows incredibly tiresome very quickly.

At times, I'm Still Here seems to be critiquing the Hollywood machine that Phoenix has turned his back on. The film opens with clips from the actor's publicity tour for Walk the Line, where he had to answer the same questions again and again, and he complains about being treated as nothing more than a puppet, being told where to stand and what to say on set. Later in the film, a reluctant Phoenix is persuaded to take part in a press junket for Two Lovers (in which he gave an excellent performance), and once more we see him having to pose for pictures and answer inane questions from a succession of journalists. It actually makes you wonder why more stars don't retreat from such a soul-destroying routine.

But whether or not that's what Phoenix and Affleck are up to here is hard to say. The motives behind I'm Still Here remain murky and the purpose of it, the film's reason to exist, remains vague. I'm Still Here is either a painful portrait of a man falling apart or a self-indulgent joke played by two arrogant actors – either way, I found it almost unendurable and completely unedifying. Affleck's attempt to end his film on a note of pathos (during which he seems to give the fictional game away by casting his own father as Phoenix's dad) rings completely hollow because he hasn't given us a single reason to care about this man. Ultimately, it feels like the joke is on us.