This isn’t so much a movie review as it is a consideration of a pop-culture—or even a sociological—phenomenon. I’m giving I’m Still Here three-and-a-half stars on that basis, so bear that in mind. Joaquin Phoenix may still be here, but the film barely is—at least if you’re expecting it to answer the central question: Is this real or a put-on? The film neatly dodges providing an actual answer, which has resulted in even more speculation on the topic of whether Phoenix is a head case who has dropped out of acting to become the most superbly untalented hip-hop artist of all time, or if this is some elaborately immersive piece of performance art. Just look at the reviews—which are split right down the middle—and you’ll see that some people are convinced it’s real and others are equally convinced it’s sheer banana oil.
There’s a kind of genius to the whole affair, which is a good thing, because there’s no trace of genius about the film itself. As a movie, I’m Still Here is coarse, amateurish, badly lit, even more badly recorded and in serious need of a thorough editing. There is at least 20 minutes too much of it for its own good. (The critic I watched it with weighed in that it was easily 30 minutes too long.) I was occasionally amused, fairly often appalled, more often bored and ended up pretty firmly in the “it’s a hoax” camp. That said, this evasive, misshapen lump of a movie is one I’ve enjoyed thinking about. In that regard, it reminds me of one of Yoko Ono’s experimental movies—far more interesting to think about than actually watch. But Yoko’s movies were generally better made and had enough sense not to drag on for 107 minutes. However, the level of self-absorption was about equal.
Several questions emerge. First of all, I’m not at all sure that the public at large is really all that interested in this. They already know that Phoenix dropped out and proceeded to make himself look like the love child of one of the Smith Brothers and a member of Z.Z. Top while pursuing a recording career. Yes, he was a movie star—and since he’s in nearly every shot of I’m Still Here, he still is—but he was never a huge star. When he walked away from it all in 2008, it was after making the indie production Two Lovers. It wasn’t as if every camera in Hollywood was going to stop turning in light of this momentous event. Yet, the media kept interest simmering, which seems to be what the media does these days. Whether that can really make I’m Still Here a hit—even as documentaries go—is another matter.
Then there’s the question of the image—real, imaginary or both—this movie conveys of Joaquin Phoenix. It’s not a pretty one. The guy comes off as totally delusional, overprivileged, spoiled, largely incoherent and completely unlikable. I suppose that’s brave, but do you want to spend time with a guy like that? Are we supposed to feel sorry for him? If so, the film failed for me, because I wanted to slap him across the face with a large flounder well before the midway point. And yet, I’m still thinking about the damned thing, so something about it works.
The real question is whether you buy into the persona. I’m having trouble believing the reality of any of it. The film itself seems to be offering hints that what we’re seeing is bogus. Some things just come across as too calculated and convenient. The “parting shot” (if it can be called that) of Phoenix’s much-abused personal assistant (Antony Langdon) is shocking—until you think about it, and then it looks like pure codswallop. It requires director Casey Affleck being in on it, or it requires Affleck having just left the camera lying around, and it requires Affleck being right there to record the aftermath. Every aspect of that seems unlikely. It’s hard to believe that Sean Combs and Ben Stiller aren’t playing along. And why is Affleck’s father, Tim, appearing as Phoenix’s father? Is that the tip-off?
So am I recommending this movie? Yes, but only if you’re interested in the whole topic as a notable peculiarity of our age. In that regard, it’s certainly worth seeing, but don’t come out complaining that I said I’m Still Here is a good movie. I didn’t. I said it was a good phenomenon—and that’s true regardless of what finally shakes out of all this nonsense. Not rated, but contains nudity, near constant language, sexuality, drug use and a couple bodily functions.