When Academy Award nominee Joaquin Phoenix (Walk The Line) announced that he would retire as an actor and begin a career as a hip hop artist, did anyone really believe it? Shortly thereafter rumors began flying that he and his brother-in-law Casey Affleck (Gone Baby Gone) were filming a documentary about the transition – which is now obviously true because we have the film. Because Phoenix kept up his unfunny schtick for so long – a lot of it being in front of the media – you couldn’t help but wonder if he was serious.
Even when you watch I’m Still Here you have no idea if he is joking or not. You leave the theater scratching your head because the film’s purpose is never made evident. Were they trying to be serious? Were they joking? Is Joaquin Phoenix truly trying to intentionally destroy his acting career – because this film just might do it.
I’m Still Here opens with a pacing Phoenix talking about how he cannot distinguish his real inner self from the one that appears in the movies. He talks about how he needs to separate himself from acting for a while in order to discover his true self. It sounds more like an overly-written conversation from the existential indie film I Heart Huckabee’s than marijuana-enduced ramblings from a successful actor. That scene starts it all.
From there Phoenix decides to become a hip hop artist. When we hear his “original music,” it is your typical meaningless hip hop. (Yes, I think hip hop is meaningless). Had this been a true story about Joaquin Phoenix going off the deep end, don’t you think it would be for something meaningful? Assuming that the event shook his life as much as it is said to have, don’t you think that somewhere in this highly documented chunk of his life he would refer to being present when his brother River Phoenix (Stand By Me) overdosed in his arms? We never get deeper into Phoenix’s life than his few friends that work as assistants.
After that, almost everything else we see is like watching a rerun of the news. Everything he did was done before the public eye, leaving no room for surprises. We have already seen it all.
I’m Still Here occasionally goes for laughs, but nothing memorable. One scene tries too hard to be something vile from Jackass and the funniest scene in the whole movie already had a million views on YouTube before the film even came out – Phoenix’s odd appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman.
Had Phoenix and Affleck wanted to make this a real “film,” there is only one thing that should have done differently – filmed it out of the media’s sight, filmed on location. There never would have been any confusion or frustration from the media and general public. If the whole movie is truly as scripted as Affleck is saying it was, then that would not have been an issue. Instead we are all sitting here puzzled, leery of paying to see a story that we already saw unfold live a year and a half ago.
When it is all said and done, knowing what you know, I’m Still Here is a long-winded mess. It is meandering and lengthy, unnecessarily crude and uninteresting. It is a shame to see so much great talent be wasted on something not worth watching. Just like his older brother Ben, Casey Affleck has a great eye behind the camera. The bookend opening and closing sequences are beautiful. And Phoenix’s performance absolutely sells this whacky character. He had a lot of us fooled. And even knowing that it is all an act, which watching the film you will still fall for it. Phoenix is an amazing actor – but now it is time for him to get back to more conventional styles of acting. Give us the Phoenix that we all want to see, not this contrived alter-ego.
Photo credit: Magnolia