Review: I’m Still Here (2010)

Director: Casey Affleck

****

It has always been this critic’s contention that cinema is a liar. Unless you have been told otherwise beforehand, you can assume that the events one sees onscreen are a fabrication. Early on in I’m Still Here, the directorial debut of Casey Affleck, Joaquin Phoenix states that he is sick “of playing the character of Joaquin”, thus setting out to find his real voice. This is the chronicle of Phoenix’s shaky transition from brooding actor to aspiring rap artist. Arguably, this story has already been played out in the tabloid rags of America, with piss-poor public performances culminating in a car-crash interview on the Late Show with David Letterman in February 2009. Affleck collates these clips with behind-the-scenes footage of Phoenix as he descends into arrogance and delusion fueled by drugs and yes men. However, is Phoenix being honest, or is he still “playing Joaquin”? We’ve been told it’s real. But still…

Before I continue, I will (perhaps unprofessionally) give a little personal context to this film. As soon as Phoenix announced his retirement, I called shenanigans on the entire ruse. His subsequent public appearances reinforced my position. When the initial reviews (Roger Ebert, for example) treated the film as real, I was aghast. How did Affleck and Phoenix fool them all? I started to doubt. Then Affleck confirmed the ruse, and all was right with the world. If it had been real, I’m Still Here would have been Phoenix’s one-way ticket to the psychiatric ward. Unhinged, unkempt and often unintelligible, Phoenix has lost all interest in who he is in the pursuit of who he dreams of being. However, since we now know the film is a fake, there is no other way to describe this film than the high point of Phoenix’s career. He’s utterly magnificent as a version of himself that, whilst decidedly removed from reality, is still recognizably Joaquin Phoenix. Can one get an Oscar nomination for playing oneself? It might flout the rules, but Phoenix deserves it, committing himself to his ‘role’ as much as Sacha Baron Cohen committed himself to Borat and Bruno, only more so. Weight gain and the beard are only the tip of the iceberg; Phoenix becomes this hobo-like vision that shocked David Letterman. It takes a fierce talent to pull this act off.

Indeed, it’s a tribute to Phoenix that he convinced so many his career change was real, because Affleck is clearly making a mock-doc. The film, for all its hand-held grit, has its tongue buried deeply in its cheek. The excesses of Phoenix’s showbiz life are so many and so over the top as to be downright hilarious. It’s a good thing that Affleck admitted his deception, because I’m Still Here, once acknowledged as fake, is one of the funniest films of the year. Listening to Phoenix’s (godawful) hip-hop or watching him dance with call girls is a lot funnier when we’re in on the joke. It’s a satire on the media’s obsession with the lives of celebrities, and Affleck and Phoenix have the last laugh.

It might be a little overindulgent (the behind-the-scenes footage can get a little too talky), but I’m Still Here is still a triumph for Affleck and (in particular) Phoenix. It’s a brave film with a brave performance at its centre. Joaquin, we’re glad you’re back! That said, we’re even happier you never left in the first place. Clearly, Affleck and Phoenix share my opinion of cinema as a great liar.

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