TIFF10 REVIEW: I’m Still Here [2010]

“I don’t want to be the Joaquin character anymore”

I think director Casey Affleck’s letter to the audience attending the Toronto International Film Festival screening of his (faux?) documentary I’m Still Here stated the type of polarizing effect it has on the entertainment obsessed public best. “Because of the premiere in LA, I couldn’t make it before the screening and I didn’t want to be there after it,” going on to say that he will address the media’s burning questions about the validity of what he filmed in due time. He wants all those who are going to see it to be able to do so untainted by the revelation of whether star/subject Joaquin Phoenix actually had the meltdown identity crisis depicted. If he had arrived in Toronto to answer fans afterwards, he would have been bombarded with “is it?” or “isn’t it?” and many more who spouting how pretentious, lewd, and unnecessarily salacious the whole endeavor was. I don’t think I’d go as far as saying all that—I do think the intrigue behind documenting a celebrity’s complete and utter undoing is a fantastic concept. My problem with the film is the fact I’ve seen it all before.

Ever since his retirement announcement on TV, the media frenzy spiraled out of control. And I followed every minute of it. Here was a guy who has had a history of psychological issues stemming from his older brother River’s untimely death in front of Hollywood’s Viper Room. There appeared to be something gravely wrong with the actor as he decided to throw away a career that earned him a Golden Globe win and two Oscar nominations for a fledgling at best rebirth as a rap artist. Was it all a joke? Was he seriously going insane? Was his brother-in-law Casey Affleck going to film every second of it? The possibilities were insane either way. We could end up watching a very public explosion, potentially leading to his extinction from the industry or very possibly death itself, or else a well-orchestrated ruse ultimately still rendering him unusable in films due to the change in public opinion and liability his tainted image would cultivate. On paper, whether real or not, Phoenix didn’t appear to have a way out … and that risk only made it more impressive and worthy of note.

Sure, the tabloids and paparazzi-run TV shows posited their opinions and kept the topic in the public’s consciousness, but it was the internet that really brought everything into the open. Fans began to upload videos of Phoenix’s rap shows, depicting the actor as high, obnoxious, untalented, and surly to the point of breaking into brawls if the inebriation didn’t cause him to fall over first. The scraggly beard got more unkempt and eventually, after a full year of this nonsense, planned or unplanned in 2008, the coup de grâce occurred with an appearance on “Late Night with David Letterman”, during a press run for Two Lovers. Mumbling, chewing gum, despondent, and for all intents and purposes not even there, Phoenix put the final nail in his self-created coffin, the comedian unable to hide his displeasure nor subdue his biting jabs in response to the unprofessional punk on his couch. With that, the retired thespian all but vanished from the public eye, going into exile only to have the finished product, I’m Still Here, announced for release—a promise to see exactly what happened during ‘The Lost Years of Joaquin Phoenix”.

And I bought into it hook line and sinker; I was so enthralled by the stuff I had seen. To watch the whole thing unravel from start to finish would be awesome. Or so I thought. Instead of delving deeper into the situation, Affleck’s documentation only shows us much of what we already knew spliced together with behind the scenes footage making Phoenix seem even more lost, chastising his stupidity but doing nothing to rectify it. Between the cocaine, the marijuana, the surfing for sex escorts, the towel slapping of friend Anthony Langdon (not to mention Anton’s penis finding its way on camera more than once), and the facial defecation while asleep, the audience is placed right into the middle of the debauchery. All the while, Joaquin is either inaudibly mumbling or laughing in a high-pitched giggle about the most innocuous things as he attempts to make a run at a rap career, even enlisting the help of Sean ‘P. Diddy’ Combs to produce. But he constantly misses appointments, never feels sure of himself, and possesses music unworthy of a five-year old Diddy listening let alone the massively successful industry leader he is. You don’t blame Combs for thinking it’s all a joke and not returning calls. Everyone does.

People like Ben Stiller come in hoping Phoenix will get back on track and read for a role in Greenberg, Mos Def is unable to hide his confused disbelief when told of Joaquin’s career change, and Edward James Olmos even visits to stage a one-man intervention, speaking of metaphoric waterdrops and hoping his friend finds a way back to sanity. And right when you think things can’t get worse, they do. Phoenix alienates the only friend he has in Anton, a friend so supportive he even tells Affleck, “If he wants to do it, we do it”. He doesn’t question Joaquin’s craziness, his temper tantrums, or his forever-ungroomed appearance with one clump of hair constantly sticking straight up on the back of his skull. Does Anton know what’s going on? If it’s all a joke, will he forgive and continue to work alongside his buddy? By the reactions onscreen, I’d be hard-pressed to say yes. I won’t deny Affleck and Phoenix’s stunt is an impressive undertaking, I just see it backfiring—whatever it’s eventually exposed to be. I loved watching it over a two-year window, but seeing it all compiled together only proves how pretentious and self-indulgent it is; I was bored hoping for answers that never came. I hope Joaquin somehow finds a way to put this all behind him and make great films again.

I’m Still Here 4/10 | ★ ½

[1-3] Joaquin Phoenix in I’M STILL HERE, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

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