I'm Still Here Directed by: Casey Affleck Cast: Joaquin Phoenix Running Time: 1 hr 47 mins Rating: R Release Date: September 10, 2010
PLOT: Real-life actor Joaquin Phoenix announces he will quit acting and focus on a hip-hop music career. His brother-in-law and fellow actor Casey Affleck documents this journey.
WHO'S IT FOR? Have you been curious since you heard Phoenix was going to retire? Well then, see the movie. If you only want a yes or no answer to the hip-hop question, then don't see the movie.
We (this collective thing we call our society) like to be in on the joke. We don't like having the wool pulled over on us. But here's the thing, I'm Still Here isn't a joke. It's the attempt at something. The attempt of creating. I wonder if that concept will have a place in our mainstream media, or if that concept will be in the reviews for the film I'm Still Here. I don't know if we can get past the question of "real" or "fake." I don't know if the movie wants us to get over that question or keep it at the forefront. Is the purpose of this movie for the audience to figure out if it's real or fake? I don't think so. I have decided what we are watching is art. That doesn't raise the stakes, make it above a certain crowd, or anything else. I simply believe this movie exists (I know, kind of lame and kind of a cop out).
Once Phoenix decides that Reservation Road and Two Lovers are his last acting gigs, his big beard mumbling persona explain to us it's hip hop that will allow his true creative urges to be released onto the world. He wants a big-time producer along for this journey. Dr. Dre isn't available, but Sean Combs (P. Diddy) might be. Phoenix and his team of assistants go on a long journey to get Combs to listen to the music. He runs into some celebrities along the way, most notably Ben Stiller and Edward James Olmos. There are few moments captured that show Phoenix working on his craft. I think this is mainly due to the fact that Phoenix is a trainwreck of a human being at this point. Cocaine, pot, cigarettes and hookers are all indulgences. The fact that Affleck and a camera crew are there to capture all of this is not the focus. If it were, we'd immediately be getting into questions of enabling. Everyone seems to be employed by Phoenix, so all of the blame would fall on Affleck.
The singing alone is thankfully not the focus of the film. We only watch him work his way through one complete song. "I'm Still Here," at a Miami nightclub. On a technical level, Phoenix doesn't have a deep enough voice, there is no base in it. So that means any live performance is eaten away by the crowd and speakers. He desperately wants people to listen to the lyrics, but we can't hear. It doesn't seem as though Phoenix is taking the process of becoming a hip-hop performer seriously. This goes back to the trainwreck concept. Phoenix is desperately searching for something, but isn't willing to put the work in to find it. There isn't much funny about that. Phoenix is sad, not funny. His actions are pitiful, not amusing. That's the weird part of this. I "enjoyed" this film the most when I was feeling sad for him.
Why can't people walk away from one career and try something new?
I hate when a film can't be self-contained. Right now, Affleck is swearing to the reality of this film. There will be some who swear it's all real, and all fake, but the fact that audiences don't know where the lines of reality might be blurred is fairly brilliant. It's almost as if whatever Affleck/Phoenix says changes the way we will see the film. Just like if Christopher Nolan told us that at the end of Inception the top falls. The difference is most of us don't want to know whether the top falls, but must know if I'm Still Here is real. What's great about this movie is when our media reacts to Phoenix declaring his decision to quit acting or the trainwreck on "The Late Show with David Letterman," the film changes with it. This is a capture of a character whether or not Joaquin Phoenix knows it. It's also a capture of our society and how we react. There is sympathy here. Watching Diddy go from mild amusement to disappointment when listening to Phoenix's attempt at a hip-hop album is powerful. Watching Phoenix watch as fellow actors make him the butt of their jokes is even worse. Phoenix cares what our reaction is. Otherwise I'm Still Here wouldn't exist. "The Real World" isn't real and neither is this. That's the thing, no matter how amount of "real" a documentary declares itself to be, if cameras are following the subject ... it's not reality. It's reality showcased, glamorized, dissected -- take your pick. It's still interesting to watch. Here is what I believe ... Joaquin Phoenix became something during this time period. He threw himself into it, and wanted to believe. At this point, it looks like it's up to you whether you want to believe or not. The "why" becomes a discussion for another time.
FINAL SCORE: 6/10