Screen Rant’s Mike Eisenberg Reviews I’m Still Here

Ever since Joaquin Phoenix publicly announced his retirement from acting, (some) people have been aching to know one thing: Was the announcement real or a hoax? News of a documentary by brother-in-law/fellow actor Casey Affleck only furthered suspicion that it all might have been for show. Now that I’m Still Here is in theaters, the answer is still as ambiguous as ever.

But in the end, it really doesn’t matter. Whether the story is true or not (a debate that is sure to rage for a long time after this), the film nonetheless presents a story – about a man searching for his true identity in the often fake world of celebrity – that is as gripping and moving as any indie or drama movie that I’ve seen in recent years. Spend as much time as you like trying to discern the reality of it all, but if you do you’ll miss the real show.

Casey Affleck has put together one of the most spellbinding, horrific, sad and hilarious (mock?) documentaries in recent memory. While his work is pinpoint, one could argue a documentary is only as compelling as its subject. And Joaquin Phoenix is one interesting subject indeed.

I’m Still Here jumps right in with a short montage of childhood videos, which include an extended home video of a young Joaquin preparing to jump off a 15-foot waterfall. His willingness to make the leap, despite fear, signifies an instant metaphor for the film that follows. When we catch up to the now-bearded Joaquin, he is aggravated by the fake personality he is forced to present as an actor. This bizarre persona we’ve come to expect of him is not the act – at least not according to Phoenix. He is tired of being told how to act, how to dress and where to stand. We witness the emergence of what he believes to be the true man inside of him.

If you wanted some hard evidence that this whole thing may be a hoax, the actual observance of his decision to quit acting may be it. Had Phoenix’s friend and confidant, Casey Affleck, heard of the decision and then begin documenting the consequences, my reaction may have been different. Either way, the disaster that unfolds is astounding.

I’m Still Here is a collection of moments. It’s not an E! True Hollywood episode, nor is it an episode of The Hills – it is somewhere right in between the two. There are sequences of sheer unpredictability, while others are events that have become ingrained in the social psyche (like Phoenix’s Letterman breakdown). Whereas The Hills may be a show based on real people, it is full of composed relationships and fake interactions – precisely what many argue is the focus of I’m Still Here.

What is completely unpredictable is the amount of drug abuse, sexual deviance and inner anguish that Phoenix is a part of in the documentary. This is one of the more R-rated documentaries you’ll see this year. Between the multiple scenes of cocaine use are moments of extended full frontal nudity (not Phoenix) and other events unmentionable on this website.

But the first half of the documentary is more about a laughable mess than a dissection of a performer’s torn soul. I found myself laughing constantly at the mayhem that ensued and the slurred idiocy of Joaquin’s descent into madness. He is absolutely off the reservation for the duration of the entire documentary. But throughout all of this, he has an unjustified expectation of the world around him, as he leaves acting to pursue a career hip-hop artist. Phoenix fully expects the fruits of his onscreen labor to equal immediate respect from his peers and the public. But this is a man who simply cannot hear the awfulness of his own music – or possibly chooses not to.

His ambition is still evident as Phoenix pursues his rap dreams – his dedicated assistants help him without any hesitation, which poses further questions as to the reality of it all. But still, his utter realism and the openness of his character reveal the true identity of I’m Still Here. It is a film about a misguided soul who expects to achieve something significant in the hip-hop industry, even though his music is awful. When his bizarre dreams come to a crashing halt, I couldn’t help but be torn apart by his disappointment.

Joaquin Phoenix has long been one of my favorite actors. His performance in Gladiator propels the film to unparalleled heights for me. It’s important that I say this, because it may be why the documentary brought me to tears. It wasn’t the Jackass-like moments of stupidity or his awful music; a little past the halfway mark, things start to really go downhill for Phoenix and he begins to recognize that nobody respects him. From his fanboy-like obsession to impress P. Diddy to his meltdown on The David Letterman Show, it is one disaster after another.

I found myself heartbroken that he had become so lost in this process. Whatever it is Phoenix is trying to accomplish and no matter how contrived you think it is, his journey is heartbreaking. If it’s all a hoax, then it’s a hoax which only proves that Phoenix is one of the best actors in Hollywood.

But instead of constantly looking for cracks in the reality, I’d recommend that viewers simply sit back and bear witness to a man tearing at the seams of his life. This is a human being completely falling apart and it is all caught on tape. The last 20 minutes are as heart-wrenching as most Oscar-winning dramas.

And this brings me to Casey Affleck.

Affleck conducts a symphony orchestra of emotions and realism to bring us the most realistic (not the same as real) portrayal of a broken and lost soul in recent memory – it’s also a film which serves as a scathingly cunning and insightful commentary on the twisted world of celebrity. I’m Still Here is not just a study of Joaquin Phoenix, everybody is under the spotlight, even without a single off-site interview – another aspect that makes this documentary appealing. Phoenix’s assistants are pushed to the edge, and not everybody can hang on. Celebrities litter the screen and their reactions to Phoenix’s personality shifts are priceless. Affleck finds his way on camera occasionally, but he is as enigmatic as the main character.

It isn’t until the bitter end of the roller-coaster documentary that Affleck truly gets an opportunity to sit in the director’s chair. Clearly, the majority of the film is all on the shoulders of its star, Joaquin Phoenix, but when the group heads for Panama, Affleck turns the documentary into a gorgeous, Terrence Malick-like journey into Phoenix’s soul. The scenery, coupled with mesmerizing music, is only broken by Phoenix’s sloppy body as it slowly descends into what can only be compared to the jungle of Apocalypse Now – full of sadness and deep thought.

This documentary is one of the most engaging of its kind. The only true way to uncover its true identity might be to find out what fell on the cutting room floor. Surely there are unseen moments that reveal the true integrity (or blatant fakery) of I’m Still Here. But if you spend the 108 minutes trying to figure it out, you’ll surely miss the beauty of it all.

Laugh at the stupidity and then pity the train wreck. It will attack all of your senses, but only if you let it.

Check out this clip from the film, where Joaquin Phoenix seeks rap career advice from Diddy:

Our Rating:

4 out of 5