I’m Still Here
Joaquin Phoenix and Casey Affleck are two young actors who I thoroughly enjoy watching onscreen, especially Affleck. His recent work (Gone Baby Gone, The Killer Inside Me) suggests a thespian with a deep reservoir of pain and rage – the younger brother within us all. Phoenix is pretty famously a younger brother himself, although he’s had years of laudable performances to avail himself of the status.
I preface this review with my affection for the two in order to highlight just how disappointed and disgusted I am at both of them for the roundly despicable “gonzo” documentary I’m Still Here. Essentially a bad joke, cynical in nature, clumsy in execution, the film aspires to cast Phoenix as a Method actor at the end of his rope. Increasingly disheveled and disturbingly erratic, he attends a stage play intended to pay tribute to the recently deceased Paul Newman and benefit a kids charity. Backstage, Phoenix disses the play – which is not part of Affleck’s “gonzo” fake-reality world, and whines that Affleck gets to share the stage with Tom Hanks and Jack Nicholson while he’s forced to slum it with Danny DeVito. At this point it’s unclear whether or not Phoenix is “in character” as the alternate-universe Phoenix, but it doesn’t matter – either way it’s an ugly display.
Phoenix and Affleck, along with a couple of Phoenix’s suffering assistants, giggle and fraternize and somewhere along the way they concoct a terribly unfunny idea (we don’t see this plan come together in the film, but they both admitted to the scheming in later interviews): to film Phoenix’s Andy Kaufman-esque descent into madness as some kind of performance art. They drastically underestimate the power of the information-age media, however, and the public catches on to the hoax almost immediately.
At this point, any sane artist would scrap the plans and call it a day, but these two are apparently so cut off from reality, so thoroughly self-possessed and insular, that they forge ahead. The result is an excruciatingly long hour and 45 minutes in which they unfold their elaborate joke and never realize that the audience already knows the punchline going in. In the process, the two manage to offend drug addicts, the entire hip-hop genre (Phoenix is baffled that his rap career stalls despite his having paid absolutely no dues) and anyone working in the trenches of the Hollywood machine – agents, publicists and managers who are just trying to do their jobs but are treated by the onscreen and offscreen duo as worthless tools.
What’s worse is they made it impossible to view the movie without prior knowledge or preconceptions. So ubiquitous was Phoenix’s flameout that it was already a pointless endeavor, but for Affleck to announce to the New York Times, before the film even expanded beyond New York and L.A., that the whole thing was a big joke was not just self-defeating but artistically cowardly. There’s nothing “gonzo” about beating the audience to the punch; there’s nothing cinematic about writing off your entire premise before it has the chance to be judged on its own. This lack of courage in their obviously one-time staid conviction reveals Affleck and Phoenix as exactly what Phoenix claims to detest: pitiful, spoiled cogs in the Hollywood engine.