By Don Simpson | January 2, 2011
Director: Casey Affleck
Writer(s): Casey Affleck, Joaquin Phoenix
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Antony Langdon, Carey Perloff
Casey Affleck’s directorial debut I’m Still Here is the one film of 2010 that I really wish I could have seen in advance of its theatrical release, but for some reason the publicists handling this film were extremely selective with who could see it…and I obviously did not make the cut. I just wanted to have an opportunity to give my two cents about the film while the debate about its legitimacy and honesty was still fresh. It also would have been nice to chime in with my opinion about its realism prior to Affleck and Phoenix’s confessions that it was all just a ruse.
At this point, I can write that I have no doubts that I’m Still Here is a work of fiction and how ridiculous it is that people are upset that they were deceived and/or betrayed — because the entire premise of the film is so damn ridiculous — but it’s much too late to weigh in about any of that. Nonetheless, I still plan on commenting on the reactions of Letterman and the like because I believe that debate is still quite valid and relevant. And I will probably still find some time and space to make some snarky (and patronizing) comments such as “How could anyone believe that this is real?!” throughout this review.
Now, on with the review…oh, and by the way — THERE ARE SPOILERS APLENTY WITHIN THIS REVIEW! If you are curious about I’m Still Here, please watch it before you read too much about it.
So here is Joaquin Phoenix with a potbelly, scruffy beard, crazy shaggy hair, and taped-up sunglasses, looking like a stoned and dethroned has-been. (If I did not know any better, I would think that the character of Joaquin Phoenix is being played by Zach Galifianakis.) Between his last film (Two Lovers) and the filming of I’m Still Here, Phoenix has de-evolved into a chain smoking and drunken druggie — an all around total freak-out. Oh, and Phoenix has purportedly changed careers from acting to rapping and changed his name to “JP” (not to be confused with SLSS scribe J.P. Chapman), and his brother-in-law Affleck is around to document Phoenix’s transition. Umm…How could anyone ever believe that this is real?
This is a totally selfless performance on the part of Phoenix and risky on so many levels. Especially after the fact, considering the pushback, Phoenix may have screwed himself and his acting career with this one role. Phoenix and Affleck have certainly burned a lot of bridges (as well as credibility, time and money) with this production. By the time Phoenix appears on Letterman for the publicity of Two Lovers, he must know that his acting career is pretty well screwed and his breakdown afterwards is the most real (or realistic) part of I’m Still Here.
Edward James Olmos makes a brief appearance and he obviously believes that JP is for real (though he seems a bit hesitant) as he philosophizes to him about the personal journey of individual drops of water. JP is quite respectful of Olmos and his teachings, but when Ben Stiller tries to recruit JP for Greenberg, all that Phoenix can do — by way of his JP persona — is to make fun of Something About Mary. Then, there is P. Diddy, who most bluntly questions JP’s motives (“Do you think its fucking funny?!”). When JP makes his aforementioned Letterman appearance, all Letterman can do is make fun of JP’s new persona (and lack of personal hygiene); Letterman concludes the one-sided shellacking with “Joaquin, I’m sorry you couldn’t be here tonight.”
So how would Olmos, Stiller, Diddy and Letterman have reacted to JP if they knew that this was a fictionalized character developed by Phoenix and Affleck? First of all, their reactions would not have been nearly as authentic. Secondly, I highly doubt that Letterman would have played along (he barely plays along as it stands). As if Phoenix is the host of a feature length version of Candid Camera, or has decided to channel Sacha Baron Cohen, the entire crux of I’m Still There relies on Phoenix’s ability to convince everyone around him that JP is too legit to quit. I’m Still There would have never worked as a critique of celebrity (and the media and “reality” television) if everyone onscreen did not fall for Phoenix’s performance. Sure, some appear to have their doubts about the legitimacy of JP, but this is where their histories with Phoenix come into play. They all know Phoenix well enough to trust him — they might not trust his instincts and new career choice, but they trust that if Phoenix says that he is a rapper named JP, then he is a rapper named JP.
And yes, Olmos, Stiller, Diddy and Letterman (and several others) were conned by Phoenix, but I do not believe Phoenix (or Affleck) did anything to harm them. Stiller is the most harshly attacked by JP, but after knowing that it was all a fictionalized ruse I suspect that Stiller has probably been able to shake off JP’s comments. (And Stiller did take a few hefty — and very public — jabs at Phoenix too!)
As for the film’s audience…well, Affleck stated in several post-confession interviews that he felt as though he sprinkled enough clues about the film’s falseness throughout I’m Still Here that the audience should realize that it is a work of fiction. (I, for one, agree with Affleck’s statement because…HOW COULD ANYONE EVER BELIEVE THAT THIS IS REAL?!) Affleck even utilizes some early accusations of their shenanigans to create some dramatic tension within the context of the film — from the moment Phoenix makes his announcement that he has officially quit acting, leaks about that statement being part of an elaborate hoax commence. Affleck lets the audience know that people are doubting the authenticity of the JP persona and offers no real rebuttal to those claims. And in case there are any viewers who do not pick up on Affleck’s clues throughout the film, there are a few very obvious ones during the end credits — the hecklers in Miami are credited as actors and Joaquin’s father is played by Tim Affleck.
Was I’m Still Here a good idea? Well who would have guessed that the backlash would have been so severe? I’m Still Here flopped in the box office and DVD sales and rentals do not seem to be much better. I would be hesitant to call I’m Still Here a great film, but I do think Phoenix’s performance is nothing short of amazing. The film has some very interesting things to say about celebrity and has prompted a fruitful discussion on how much disclosure filmmakers (especially documentary filmmakers) should offer to their participants and audience.
Personally, I would have preferred for Affleck and Phoenix to continue to play the reality of I’m Still Here close to their chests — like Banksy’s Exit Through the Gift Shop — and never reveal anything definite; though I am not certain if keeping up the charade would have damaged Phoenix’s future acting prospects more or less. (According to IMDB, Phoenix has signed on to play a leading role in Steven Shainberg’s [Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus] new film Big Shoe; and Affleck’s upcoming acting slate is quite full, with no announcements of a sophomore directorial effort.)
I have said it before and I will say it again, 2010 will be remembered by me as the year that Americans finally learned to question the truthfulness and authenticity of documentary films. The heated debate that arose in 2010 from films such as Exit Through the Gift Shop, Catfish and I’m Still Here is quite refreshing to me. The two aspects of cinema that I am most interested in are realism and audience studies. I am fascinated by filmmaking techniques used to convey a sense of realism or truthfulness and I am curious about how the audience reacts to the different techniques. Hopefully this debate will eventually trickle down to the “reality” television programs that have been infesting American popular culture for several years now. Sure some people question the authenticity of “reality” television, but I would bet that a majority of the audience still believe that their favorite “reality” television programs are indeed real…or they just do not want to think about it at all.