Rated R for sexual material, graphic nudity, pervasive language, some drug use and crude content.
Starring: Jaoquin Phoenix, Casey Affleck, Antony Langdon
Written by: Casey Affleck/Jaoquin Phoenix
Directed by: Casey Affleck
I’m Still Here is not a real documentary. Did I just ruin everything for you? Sorry to do that, but it’s important that you know from the outset; with this knowledge comes a deeper appreciation for the work that is presented here. This is performance art, pure and simple; for a year, Jaoquin Phoenix played the part of a celebrity on a slow descent into madness and self-destruction and he played the part well enough that many people thought it wasn’t just an act. That takes some sheer talent. And in watching I’m Still Here, you can really appreciate the thought that went on when making this. However, I know some people will react violently, calling this self-indulgent or a waste of a time; they may be right in some cases, but I don’t agree so let me do my best to change your mind.
So there is a plot, so to speak; Phoenix decides that he’s sick of acting and decides to retire to pursue other interests. It just so happens that his interest lies in starting up a career in music; not the music that almost got him an Oscar for Walk the Line though, he’s thinking broader. Jaoquin wants to be a rapper. As he writes and records material in his house, his beard grows longer and his personality begins to change. He becomes more violent both physically and vocally, and starts fading into drugs and debauchery (many times mixing the two together). Affleck shows up as himself doing the “documentary” which starts as a way to follow Phoenix into his new career but then turns into a “documentary” about the price of celebrity and how one man can fall so fast.
So is it self-indulgent? Yes, but to me that’s the point; I’m Still Here plays on celebrity culture both from an outsider perspective and from the celebrity himself. As Phoenix decides to go on a new path as a hip hop star, the media instantly thinks this is a dumb move and he becomes criticized and mocked for his move rather viciously. And you know why? Because he’s famous. Try as we might, we as a culture like watching famous people do crazy things and then make fun of them for it in order to somehow bring them to our level. It makes them human and it makes them “just like us”. If you decided to change careers, would you be mocked so viciously? I doubt it. But someone with some celebrity clout wants to do something he finds more fulfilling and to everyone watching, it’s a joke. That’s pretty damning of us as a culture I think.
And at the same time, it pokes at the ridiculousness of celebrities themselves. Sure people are mocking Phoenix left and right as he becomes withdrawn and grows a Santa beard, but he also brings it on himself a bit. With all the money in the world, he has got the ego to think that he can do whatever he wants without repercussion. He flies around, snorts coke off of hookers, and acts like a general ass (especially when he appears on David Letterman‘s show and proceeds to mumble his way through it). He treats others like shit because he believes his own hype. He’s the egotistical celebrity we all assume celebrities actually are (with the exception of Tom Hanks of course). And the self-indulgence of the movie perfectly feeds into the self-indulgence of the character; Phoenix can’t rap at all, but his ego won’t allow him to see it and he does it anyway. And his friends won’t even say anything about it, save for Anton who eventually gets booted for being real with Phoenix. Imagine every celebrity horror story fabricated or not, and that’s the essence of Phoenix’s character. It works too.
So how is I’m Still Here besides the themes it conveys? It all depends on how much you’re willing to go along with it. There are no fantastical elements; everything feels real and raw and because of that, some attention spans may not be up to the task. There are some slow parts, some unintelligble parts, but it all works together to form the story. Since Phoenix and Anton are both playing versions of themselves, I don’t know if I comment on the acting itself but from considering they are actually still friends in real life, their conflict is fucking brilliant. Phoenix really reached inside and came up with something that was authentic and I think that it shows even more talent than what we already knew he had. Plus the commitment to keep up with the character, despite burning bridges (people like P. Diddy and Letterman weren’t informed of the ruse until after), is commendable. This is Andy Kaufman-type shit, but on a slightly lesser level since no one will ever be as great as Kaufman.
Affleck’s debut behind the camera is also decent; it looks and feels like a documentary so the camera work doesn’t really factor in. However there are two absolutely beautiful shots that took my breath away when watching: one is where the camera is tilted up at Phoenix as he’s staring out into space before a big gig. It stays on that shot for a few minutes, and it really builds it up well as you see Phoenix’s cold gaze/concentration for his upcoming show. It just grabbed me by the balls and I loved it. The final shot of the movie is also beautiful, although the metaphor is a little too obvious. I won’t spoil it obviously, but it’s definitely a great shot and proof that Affleck has some of the behind the camera talent that his big brother Ben does.
Critics and audiences have been mixed on I’m Still Here since it’s release but if you couldn’t tell I’m on the pro side; it’s a wonderful look into the world of celebrity indulgence and the culture’s ability (or inability) to accept when a celebrity decides to change themselves up and start something new. It is a bit slow in parts, but overall, everyone involved does an excellent job. Especially Phoenix, who I hope returns to acting (sans beard…or maybe not because it is AWESOME) soon because we desperately need him to. To me, this faux documentary is worth every minute and if you can stomach some of the slower bits and parts of you going “what a pretentious dick!”, you may be surprised to find out you enjoy it far more than you thought you would.