This is what I get for not sitting down to write reviews as soon as I see the movie. I thought I had a little time to let this one simmer in my head, and there is plenty to let settle, but that just isn’t so. When I first sat to watch Casey Affleck’s directorial debut, a documentary chronicling the self-proclaimed lost years of Joaquin Phoenix entitled “I’m Still Here”, I was completely taken in. I do not mean this to say that I felt duped. I was simply mesmerized by the debauchery and disaster that was unfolding before me. Whether it was real or not was not the point. The point was that it was fascinating.
A couple of years ago, Phoenix, an Academy Award nominated actor, famous for being moody and difficult, announced that he was retiring from acting in order to pursue his new passion, hip-hop. It was announced shortly thereafter that Pheonix’s brother-in-law, Affleck, would be documenting this transition for a film. Then came the rumours that this was all a hoax designed for the purposes of making a mockumentary. The hoax was neither denied nor confirmed and eventually, people just lost interest. Now that the film is being released though, it is no surprise to me that Phoenix has announced his return to acting and Affleck has announced that the film was in fact staged. If they hadn’t, I’m not sure Phoenix would have ever found work again after this film.
Not knowing whether or not Phoenix was putting on an act made watching “I’m Still Here” work on levels I never expected from it. Phoenix presents himself as the brooding actor that no one understands who now wants to break free of the public’s impressions of him, which he feels trapped by. When he struggles to break into the hip-hop world, he gets angry like a little boy who isn’t getting his way. He gripes about how he has dreams and that it isn’t fair that he shouldn’t be able to make them come true as if there aren’t millions of people on the planet who watch their dreams disappear every day. Don’t get me wrong; it is absolutely infuriating to indulge this spoiled dope head but, under the knowing eye of Affleck’s lens, Phoenix is making statements about celebrity that he doesn’t even know he’s making.
Only now we know that he did know exactly what he was saying. According to Affleck, only Phoenix, his agent and he knew that this was being put on. I have not seen the film again through this new perspective but I suspect that it might let all the air out of it. Watching Phoenix disintegrate on screen is at once repulsive but also disheartening. The way Affleck cuts it together, he doesn’t appear to be begging for sympathy but rather begging the question as to how we all got there. After all, it is our celebrity obsessed culture that created this monster. Letting us in on the joke though makes me think “I’m Still Here” might cease to be sharp commentary on a fame obsessed culture and just resort back to being just about Phoenix’s ego.
He will either ruin his career and ability to be a convincing actor after this or he will win an Academy Award.
Review by Joseph Bélanger