I'm Still Here

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You’ve all seen the YouTube clip of Joaquin Phoenix 'melting down' on Letterman, and you’ve probably all seen the host of skits that came off the back of it, including Ben Stiller donning a touselled beard and shades at the Oscars and Natalie Portman asking why he looks like someone who works in ‘a Hasidic meth lab’.

Well, ‘I’m Still Here’ is that same joke played over and over again. The film, by Phoenix's brother-in-law Casey Affleck, chronicles the fall and fall of the hirsute, bulked up Phoenix as he rants, mumbles and swears at anyone who enters his personal sphere. It's amusing as an induglent experiment in stripping back the layers of celebrity while looking at the autobiographical nature of acting. But as a movie, it doesn't really hang together.

Director Affleck was, he claims, granted unrestricted access to Phoenix’s life as the one-time Hollywood golden boy took it on himself to instigate a calamitous career transition from acting (something he’s good at, but purportedly loathes) to rapping (something he’s bad at, but purportedly loves). This access includes observing the minutiae of Phoenix’s daily life, as he skulks around his house in low-slung brown cords, bullies his personal assistants (including a man who resembles Jarvis Cocker who, perhaps tellingly, always seems to be semi nude) and bellows obscene rap lyrics into the computer in his ramshackle home studio. Phoenix (if this is the real Phoenix) comes across as vile, petty and selfish. He has no qualms about his appearance or what other people think of him. The film is made up of half-formed sketches in which Phoenix comes across like a childish crank who’s escaped from his soap box at Speakers’ Corner.

The pretence is that what we’re watching is a fly-on-the-wall documentary. The claim is that all these outbursts constitute just another madcap, coked-up, escort-ordering day in the Phoenix household. But despite claims to the contrary by Affleck, ‘I’m Still Here’ feels entirely manufactured. The film’s rough storyline sees Phoenix trying to get Sean ‘P. Diddy’ Combs to produce his debut rap album, and although Combs doesn’t appear to be in on the joke, it feels like another tired spin on the Baron Cohen-style comedy of discomfort, where the line between the character and the act are subtly blurred.

But discussion about whether the film is a ruse or not feels beside the point: it looks too much like a ruse for a debate to be worthwhile. A scene in which his assistant takes scatological revenge on Phoenix in the night doesn't outrage because it looks like it was meticulously set up, night-vision camera and all. And lest we forget, Vincent Gallo has been doing the irascible maniac act for a number of years now, so the film's characterisation of 'Joaquin Phoenix' doesn't even feel all that new or exciting. Now, a film of Gallo trying to be pleasant and civil for a year? I'd pay to see that.

By: David Jenkins


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