- Rated R
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All photos © Magnolia
Reviewed by David Medsker
he big buzz behind “I’m Still Here,” Casey Affleck’s documentary about the decision by his brother-in-law Joaquin Phoenix to walk away from acting in order to pursue a career in hip hop, is that the whole thing is a hoax. Affleck even works it into the plot, so to speak. The fact of the matter is that it’s difficult to tell whether or not the movie is a hoax. Unfortunately, it’s even harder to care. Ponderous, needlessly profane and at times embarrassing, “I’m Still Here” is a miserable viewing experience. If it’s fake, then Phoenix and Affleck will be viewed as jerks for trying to pull a fast one on so many people. If it’s real, then Joaquin Phoenix is mentally ill, and Affleck is profiting from it. Either way, there is absolutely no good that can come from this movie.
The movie begins with Phoenix and Affleck preparing for a star-studded tribute to Paul Newman, who had recently passed away. Phoenix lets it slip that he’s walking away from acting to make music, and he seems offended when the world doesn’t immediately react to his announcement. (Ben Stiller suffers one of Phoenix’s many passive-aggressive outbursts when he dares to bring the script for “Greenberg” to his house after he’s retired.) Phoenix spends most of the movie trying to get in the same room with Sean Combs in order to convince him to produce his album (though he misses his first chance to meet Combs because he was too busy getting stoned), while ducking his obligations for promoting his final movie, “Two Lovers.”
When he finally agrees to do some roundtable interviews, nearly all of the questions are about whether the hip hop career is an elaborate hoax, as Entertainment Weekly recently ran a piece quoting sources in Phoenix’s camp that it indeed is a hoax. Phoenix suspects longtime friend and assistant Antony Langdon (yep, Spacehog’s guitarist), and spends the rest of the movie verbally abusing Antony for his alleged betrayal. By the time the now-infamous appearance on “Late Night with David Letterman” takes place, not to mention a disastrous performance at a Miami night club, it’s clear that Phoenix has not thought anything through, and has no idea what he’s doing.
You have to wonder about some of the coincidences that take place in this movie. Phoenix wasn’t able to get the more reserved, camera-shy guys like Dr. Dre or Rick Rubin to take a meeting with him, but he was able to get Combs, an aspiring actor, to not only meet with Phoenix but come out of the movie looking the best. Ben Stiller brings Phoenix a script at the beginning, then does an impression of Phoenix on the Academy Awards towards the end. The locations of the cameras in the Miami night club were in a perfect position to capture the ensuing chaos. Lastly, Phoenix is retired, yet still has roughly half a dozen handlers and assistants. If Phoenix and Affleck ultimately admit that they orchestrated the whole thing, it will not endear him to anyone in Hollywood. He already had a reputation for flakiness; this won’t help that one bit.
But again, if this is the real Joaquin Phoenix, then Affleck should be ashamed of himself, because Phoenix is the textbook definition of mental illness (our armchair diagnosis: bipolar disorder), and Affleck is essentially profiting from his brother-in-law’s sickness. If that was Affleck’s point, to get Joaquin to see how he treats other people (as well as himself) and urge him to get some help, then screen the movie for him in private and lock it away. There is no need for anyone else to see it, for a number of reasons.
There is nothing about “I’m Still Here” that makes sense, from its title (still here? Didn’t he want everyone to leave him alone?) to its intentions to even its existence. The only thing that it reveals – again, assuming that it’s not a hoax – is that Joaquin Phoenix is even more messed up than people originally thought he was. That’s not a reason to make a documentary; that’s cause for an intervention.
Single-Disc Blu-Ray Review:
Though most documentaries aren’t really built for an abundance of special features, “I’m Still Here” isn’t really a documentary, and as such has the benefit of including things like audio commentaries. There are two available on the Blu-ray – an insightful solo track by director Casey Affleck, and another with Affleck, Joaquin Phoenix and various cast and crew members involved in the project – as well as over an hour of deleted footage and a pair of conversations with Affleck and Phoenix conducted by “Extra” host Jerry Penacoli and former entertainment writer Christine Spines. Additionally, there’s an excellent video interview between Penacoli and Phoenix about the process of shooting the film and the sacrifices he had to make to stay in character. It’s hands-down the most fascinating thing on the disc, including the movie itself.