Chronicle of a meltdown in progress — or performance gone out of control?
Joaquin Phoenix’s late 2008 claim that he’d given up acting and taken up rap and his early 2009 appearance on the Letterman show barely responsive and looking like the Unibomber were media events that caused a lot of talk. This documentary by Casey Affleck (Ben’s younger brother, Joaquin’s brother-in-law, husband of his sister Summer) clears things up — sort of. Most of all this is the story of an isolated and confused young celebrity who’s lost his way, turned in a new and very unwise artistic direction. He is basically alone, abusing substances, protected by assistants who can’t tell him the truth because they’d lose their job. Affleck follows his subject closely, too closely for comfort, for the better part of a year.
As we see Joaquin Phoenix, he is overweight, gone to seed, with protruding belly, bushy beard, long disheveled hair. He practically chain smokes, may be drunk, smokes a lot of dope, hires prostitutes and snorts coke, nearly always seems stoned and often is only semi-coherent. Unhappy, never smiling, he takes out his rages by haranguing his assistants, who can be seen as codependents or just good friends who ought to go elsewhere.
People have speculated that the whole disheveled meltdown process of Joaquin Phoenix is a hoax to promote — what? Phoenix? His rap career? This movie? But wouldn’t it be a bit extreme to make a complete fool of yourself on national TV and in dubious rap performances just to promote a movie made by your brother-in-law that, again, depicts you as a loser? This roughly shot but keenly observed and neatly edited film may still leave some viewers puzzled, or just repelled. It contains constant profanity — every Joaquin sentence is sprinkled with f-words. There are scenes with prostitutes, male frontal nudity, drug use, vomiting, even a scene in which an enraged assistant defecates on Phoenix’s head while he is asleep. Obviously Casey Affleck had what is called “access” — unless you see this as a collaboration rather than a chronicle. Either way, the result is a close, disturbing look.
I’m Still Here debuted at the Venice Film Festival three days before its US theatrical release. As Geoffrey McNab wrote in the London Independent after just seeing this film in Venice, Phoenix initially repels us, but then may win us over because he is soldiering on through a heroic struggle. He “is desperately trying to reinvent himself in the full glare of the media.” The film itself is not a mess. Despite Affleck’s “fly-on-the-wall” realism, “I’m Still Here is cleverly crafted and edited and often very funny indeed.” And — a very good point — “If it is a hoax, Phoenix is giving one of the greatest method performances of all time.” The Variety reviewer calls it “method gone completely mad.” A performance that would have to be seen as a heroic self-sacrifice, because who will want to hire Phoenix to act again after seeing this? Phoenix has torn apart his previously smiling, good-natured, competent image and in plain view replaced it with that of a disheveled loser with the quixotic aim of entering hip hop — a field, despite the dominance of Eminem, dominated by black men.But Affleck may well have an “ulterior motive,” to show up our prurient curiosity about celebrity crackups, McNab goes on; and in Venice Affleck was coy, leaving open the possibility that in this, his directorial debut, he may have staged some of “the most outrageous scenes’ to make us ashamed of our “voyeurism.”
The film succeeds as a claustrophobic portrait of celebrity isolation. It isn’t a biopic, mock or real. It only very sketchily depicts Joaquin Phoenix in the wider context of his life and family history. An exception is brief visits, in archival footage and a new film, to a waterfall and small lagoon in Panama associated with the Phoenix family. There is a haunting clip of the five small Phoenix children in matching costumes singing and dancing, apparently on a sidewalk somewhere. Fans of River, who despite his tragically brief career was arguably the more remarkable actor, know a lot about his life and the disorienting, itinerant family history, with the many moves in Latin America, the possible precocious sex, the spotty education, the early turn to performing in which River was the star. Maybe that’s not the point of the movie. Or maybe it’s all too traumatic for Joaquin to want it gone over on screen.
But mightn’t Joaquin’s disaffection with acting as being manipulated like a puppet, told to wear certain clothes and say certain lines, go back to how the Phoenix kids were exploited by their penniless cult member parents to make money as childhood buskers? Or might Joaquin’s current meltdown be a much-delayed reaction to the trauma of watching his brother River die of an overdose on the sidewalk outside Johnny Depp’s Viper Club in Hollywood in 1993? Wisely, Casey Affleck does not speculate, or otherwise intrude in this harrowing account. Or maybe all that background is missing because this movie isn’t about the “real” Joaquin Phoenix, assuming he or Affleck knows who that is.
Joaquin’s own more extensive and not unimpressive film career is only touched on. There are allusions to his Oscar nomination for the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line. He’s had many nominations for other awards and a few wins, mostly for that and Gladiator, even one or two for his latest– or last — film, James Gray’s Two Lovers.
If I’m Still Here reads equally well as truth or hoax, this shows Casey Affleck’s skill at finding the edgy project. He and Joaquin appeared together in Gus Van Sant’s dark satire To Die For, and he has appeared notably in Van Sant’s avant-gardist Gerry, his brother’s Gone Baby Gone, in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and as a psychotic killer in Winterbottom’s disturbing 2010 film version of Jim Thomson’s pulp classic The Killer Inside Me.
The Letterman débâcle makes sense in the film’s chronology. Joaquin’s TV appearance comes right after a humiliating audience with Sean P. Diddy Combs, who rejects the idea of working with him on an album, saying he is “not ready.” Phoenix’s ego was smashed when he saw Letterman. He doesn’t feel like talking about Gray’s Two Lovers, which he was there to promote, having dropped his acting career. (In another interview he seems barely to remember the film.) But to Letterman, he can’t boast of his new career as a rapper, since that’s just received a deadly blow. Continuing his meltdown, now in high gear, Joaquin raps at a Las Vegas club where he becomes enraged at an audience member, attacks him, is pulled away, and vomits in a toilet.
During this period he bangs his head on the wall and yells that he’s f-ed his life and his career. The sadness of the period is underlined by his fights with assistants, who are his only companions. He is in a limo, a private plane, a hotel room, a semi-dark New York flat, smoking, ranting, drunk, sad. But the film ends with both Phoenix’s behavior and Affleck’s motives a mystery, and that is the fascination and originality of this annoying but compelling film.
I’m Still Here will be released in UK cinemas 17th September.
DIRECTOR: CASEY AFFLECK
WRITERS: CASEY AFFLECK, JOAQUIN PHOENIX,
CAST: JOAQUIN PHOENIX, ANTONY LANGDON, BEN STILLER, SEAN COMBS, EDWARD JAMES OLMOS, TIM AFFLECK, SUE PATRICOLA
RUNTIME: 107 MIN