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There are 6.8 billion people on this planet and most of them don’t know who you are and don’t want to. Maybe you’ll be famous, maybe you’ll be on television, but those people will still never know the real you. At best they’ll only know the public you. They have lives to live and yours can’t be the center of their universe. You shouldn’t matter to them. What does matter is that the people closest to you understand you, unless of course, you’re an insane narcissist. I’m Still Here is the story of one such narcissist.
His name is Joaquin Phoenix and you might have seen him in such films as Walk the Line. For a time he was one of Hollywood’s best actors but not long after his Oscar nomination for playing Johnny Cash, Phoenix decided to give up acting. Shortly thereafter his brother-in-law Casey Affleck began filming him as the subject of a documentary and, Phoenix appeared to quite publicly go nuts. On the record he claimed he was quitting acting to pursue a career as a rapper. Behind the scenes, as captured by his brother-in-law’s camera he confesses that there’s more to it than that. He hated acting because it didn’t allow him to show people his true self. He believes it’s important that everyone in the world know who he is on the inside. What is that true self? He doesn’t seem to know but the man portrayed in I’m Still Here would seem to be a deluded drug addict obsessed with his own fame, or lack of fame, thereof.
The trouble here is that it’s impossible to tell where the bullshit ends and the real life documentary begins. Is this the behind the scenes story of Joaquin Phoenix’s descent into madness and irrelevance or is it a carefully scripted, mockumentary meant as some sort of bizarre hoax concocted by Affleck and Phoenix? They insist it’s entirely real but there are hints that maybe it isn’t. Both Phoenix and Affleck are credited prominently in the end credits as writers. Writers of what, if this is a documentary? Too much of the film simply seems scripted. At one point Edward James Olmos randomly shows up at one of the borderline crackhouses which passes for Phoenix’s home, and delivers the kind of speech which had to be written in advance, probably for Admiral Adama to deliver on the bridge of the Battlestar Galactica, right before attacking a group of Cylon raiders. After his infamous Letterman appearance Phoenix is visibly crushed and eager to distance himself from what happened there as quickly as possible so that people will take his music seriously. But if that’s true, then why does he show up at his next concert wearing what appears to be the same carefully calculated outfit he wore to Letterman, as if inviting the crowd to ignore the music and assume this is all just an extension of one big, running gag? It’s as if his black suit is a costume, somewhere beneath it is a clown, and we’re the butt of his joke.
None of it matters. Whether it’s all real or not I’m Still Here doesn’t seem to have anything real to say or anywhere real to go. We’ve all got our own problems and unless you’re interested in sitting down to watch some rich guy grow an increasingly ridiculous beard while he whines about how tough it is to have the world at his fingertips, well there’s just no reason to bother. Maybe it’ll shock people who buy into it since Phoenix openly takes illegal substances, graphically cavorts with hookers, spends a lot of his downtime with unnecessarily naked men, and is generally a self-absorbed prick to everyone around him. But even that, should surprise no one. He’s just a caricature of every awful, Hollywood star you’ve ever heard anyone talk about.
It’s as if all the terrible, cliché, star-tripping Hollywood stories have been given form in one, long, tedious film about a kind of dopey, chubby, marginally talented loser. Though Affleck's film is clumsily shot and constructed, there are brief moments of clarity in the film. At times it seems that the Phoenix on screen, whether he’s a character or a real man, is so obsessed with sharing his inner self with the world that he’s managed to shut himself off from everyone around him. It’s as if they in turn have given up on trying to reach him and now bored by him, his friends simply stay out of his way, knowing that he won’t listen, and that they’re all better off if baby simply gets his bottle. Joaquin's movie is likely to get the same bored reaction from its audience. Any brief moment of near clarity in the film is always swept under the rug by another deep dive into Phoenix’s increasingly annoying, deluded, mumbling narcissism. Joaquin Phoenix may still be here, somewhere, but I no longer care.