I’m Still Here – A Review

20 09 2010

 

Joachin Phoenix

JP, yesterday

A huge number of column inches has already been devoted to the question of whether Casey Affleck’s new film about the physical and mental disintegration of his brother-in-law and friend Joachin Phoenix, is a straightfoward documentary (as it says on the tin) or something far more contrived and mischievous.

Well, let me say straight away that I’m Still Here is very obviously not an ‘honest’, fly-on-the-wall record of events. Certain key scenes have quite evidently been scripted in advance, and Phoenix’s shambling, paranoid performance is simply too funny to be completely unplanned. To call it a spoof or a mockumentary is perhaps going a little too far though. Rather, it’s a record of a year-long tragi-comic performance, a living piece of installation art almost, for which Phoenix grew a big bushy beard, smoked a lot of dope and appeared in various stages of coherence in the US media. How far this performance spilled over into his off-camera life is anyone’s guess, but for much of the film the actor certainly seems to be pretty immersed in deep character, living and breathing the Method like some latter-day, hoodie-wearing Brando.

I’m Still Here opens in 2008, with Phoenix’s very public announcement that, following a highly-regarded performance in Walk The Line, he’s decided to quit acting and pursue a musical career instead. Casey Affleck is the faithful chronicler of this momentous decision, following his friend with a camera through a series of Hollywood events and interviews. Straight-faced, Phoenix announces that he wants to make the “hip-hop Bohemian Rhapsody”, busting out a series of increasingly weak rhymes and trying to secure the services of Sean ‘P. Diddy’ Combs as his producer. Surrounding him is an all-male group of friends, staff and hangers-on who become the target of his increasingly wild mood swings and delusions of grandeur.

A little like Curb Your Enthusiasm, a lot of the fun here lies in guessing where the truth of a character or a situation begins and ends. The mass media (clips from which we see throughout the film) are fed the line that Phoenix is dead serious about his change of direction. We see his now-infamous appearance on The Late Show With David Letterman where he chews gum, mumbles answers to questions and seems to have genuine difficulty responding to the expectations of audience and host. Whenever his new direction is questioned – is this, in fact, all a spoof? – he becomes angry and defensive, turning on interviewers and hiring private detectives to spy on supposed ‘enemies’ within his own camp.

David Letterman, Joaquin Phoenix, I'm Still Here

At the same time, you suspect that many of the stars who have walk-on parts in the film are in on the joke, most notably Diddy, who Phoenix pursues with an almost childlike level of neediness, before finally managing to secure an awkward and ultimately disastrous audition. Phoenix also subjects real-life club-goers to his dubious vocal stylings, with mid-week bookings in clubs in Florida and LA at which he’s greeted with a mixture of curiosity and irony, hundreds of digital and phone cameras held aloft to record the fallen star.

‘JP’ the rapper is pretty funny, it has to be admitted, but there’s a serious side to the performance too. The child of hippy parents who brought him up partly in a Puerto Rican cult, Phoenix has, you sense, always been a bit of an outsider in Hollywood, even at the height of his success. I’m Still Here questions that success and what it means to be a ‘somebody’ in LA. A lot of the real-life media coverage that appears in the film is every bit as ridiculous as anything that the pot-bellied, chain-smoking Phoenix says or does. Indeed it seems that, perhaps inspired by Sacha Baron-Cohen’s Borat, Affleck and Phoenix have set out at least in part to provoke and ridicule the vapid and celebrity-obsessed US media.

There’s also the drama of a man who seems genuinely on the edge: an actor plagued with doubt about himself and about the worth of his profession; a ‘somebody’ who could very easily become a ‘nobody’ again overnight. It hardly requires a great leap of the imagination to recognise that this is probably the way that most movie stars feel at at least some point during their career. Affleck and Phoenix are smart enough to know that wealth, fame and celebrity count for very little in the grand scheme of things, that ageing and decline can only be redeemed by the kind of wisdom that’s not often found in Hollywood. And so, the final section of the film moves away from comedy and towards something more introspective and personal.

Writing in The Guardian Peter Bradshaw summed up I’m Still Here with the line: ‘Good film; dodgy career move.’ I’m not so sure that I agree. This is never quite Phoenix’s Brando-in-Last-Tango-in-Paris film, but it is maybe his Dennis-Hopper-in-Easy-Rider film: a performance to smooth the way from the pure sunlit uplands of youthful movie stardom to the more interesting cinematic diversions and detours that await the weather-beaten and the worldly-wise as they approach middle-age.

I’m Still Here is in UK cinemas now.

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