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I’m Still Here

March 2, 2011 by Simon Kinnear in At Home with 1 Comment

I got a check disc of this over Christmas… and then ate and drank too much and promptly forgot I had it until recently.  Which is kind of apt, considering.

So here’s my belated review, perfectly timed to help make sense of wherever Charlie Sheen is at right now…

I’m Still Here
(Casey Affleck, US, 2010)

…but where is “here?” Affleck and Phoenix warp celebr(eal)ity into meta-fictional carnival. Is it a juvenile prank or a startlingly sophisticated performance art?  Er, both. 

What’s it like to be a star? It’s a question that has long been associated with the idle tittle-tattle of gossip mags and paparazzi, but over the past decade the gradual collapse of the gap between fiction and reality has led to the rise of fictional meta-commentary. There’s Curb Your Enthusiasm and Entourage, of course, shows obsessed with dramatising the lives of Hollywood’s rich and famous, as well as the mockumentary ambush format perfected by Sasha Baron-Cohen. I’m Still Here is the logical destination, a dead-eyed performance art piss-take on the whole concept of being filmed.

From the moment Joaquin Phoenix first grew his Unabomber beard, styled his hair into unkempt plaits and announced his retirement from acting to become rapper JP, there were doubts about his sincerity and authenticity. But that didn’t stop the media circus descending on Phoenix anyway, from David Letterman raising a droll eyebrow at the actor’s incoherent mumbling, to Ben Stiller parodying Phoenix at the Oscars. Discovering – or having it confirmed – that the whole thing was a wind-up, and that Letterman and Stiller were probably in on the joke, doesn’t dilute its impact, because the film still plays out its thesis in the footage of rubber-necking crowds heckling Phoenix on the red carpet, or a bitchy vlogger queuing up to kick a celebrity when he’s down.

The prank is so conceptually fluid it explodes on a mind-boggling number of levels. At various points, we’re watching: a satire of actors’ pretentious side-projects; an essay in the ease and speed of spreading a meme; a dissection of the media’s compulsive gawking at scandal. Threaded throughout is a wry acknowledgement of our unspoken belief that we think this really is how stars behave in private. And it’s not just Phoenix, with a host of cameos to cherish from Sean Combs listening in polite exasperation to JP’s latest demos, to an hilariously spiritual Edward James Olmos. The fact that the ‘director’ is himself a recognisable star only adds to the carnival.

But the fact that it’s Phoenix is key. Like Being John Malkovich, the film thrives on the innate oddness of its star, and his combustible backstory. If you’d seen your superstar brother die in your arms while still a teenager… it’s all too believable that you’d go off the rails.  Phoenix’s immersion is undeniably impressive. For starters, his flow is genuinely hilarious. His voice is passionate but haltering and mechanical, his posture a cringe-worthy whigger shuffle, and the lyrics a masterclass in bombastic inanity. But, despite the OTT delivery of this self-caricature, Phoenix’s slurred speech and glazed expression is often hugely convincing, and strangely moving. There’s a kernel of truth to his self-destructive ennui.

Where it falls down is in the material set in Phoenix’s home life, which stretches the joke beyond breaking point. A subplot involving Phoenix’s taunting of his hapless assistant/hanger-on – and the guy’s disgusting revenge – feels both overplayed and lazily underwritten. It’s here that everything falls apart, and you realise how much of it is Phoenix and brother-in-law Affleck indulging themselves in the kind of prank that the WKD ad boys perfected in thirty seconds. But as a document of those months when America went mad for a barmy (ex-)actor in a beard, it’s priceless.

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One Comment

  1. NostraMar 2, 2011 at 1:28 pmReply

    It's a film I really did not like. It was just an annoying thing to watch and didn't seem to have a point besides showing the impact of a meme as you put it. If he had actually would have released an album and they also added that to film, it might have been more convincing.

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