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I'm Still Here: A failed social experiment

Joaquin Phoenix in I'm Still Here.

1 out of 4 stars


Casey Affleck's experimental "documentary", which premiered at the recent Toronto International Film Festival under a cloak of mystery, purported to follow his brother-in-law, the twice-Oscar nominated actor, Joaquin Phoenix, during the star's very public mental breakdown.

Late in 2008, the twice Oscar-nominated actor declared that he was retiring from film to focus on his rap career. He gained weight, grew a beard, and in February of last year, appeared disoriented on Late Night with David Letterman, apparently to the delight of the audience.

Throughout those months, there were repeated rumours that the whole thing was a hoax. Critics were still divided on the authenticity of the film after its first screenings: Phoenix definitely seemed messed up (some reviewers said if he was faking it, he really did deserve an Oscar) but there was plenty of evidence of fakery including selectively blurry shots, actors cast in some roles and, finally, credits listing Phoenix and Affleck as writers.

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Eventually, Affleck went on the record to say the film was fiction, a "social experiment" in which events such as the Letterman appearance were fabricated for the purpose of his film.

Initial footage begins shortly after Phoenix told a red carpet entertainment reporter - spontaneously he says - that he had decided to give up acting. He was sick of being trapped in the box of commercial filmmaking, which he calls a "self-imposed prison," and he wants to express his real self, improbably, as a rapper.

We then follow the star's self-delusion and apparent disintegration over several months. Affleck's camera keeps rolling, without any particular reason, as it follows Phoenix, soliloquizing, fretting and berating his entourage, including his "assistant" Anton (rock musician Antony Langdon of the band Spacehog) and his "caretaker," Larry. Shock moments include Phoenix (apparently) snorting coke off a hooker's breasts, vomiting in a toilet and waking up to find the vengeful Anton attempting to defecate on his face.

Unlike Sacha Baron Cohen's rude semi-documentary satires ( Borat, Bruno), I'm Still Here never finds a satiric justification for all this grotesque behaviour, just a sense that the viewer is being disproportionately punished for having bought a ticket and being curious about the private lives of the famous. No doubt what we witness is a performance for the camera, but with what motivation? Or is the hoax a hoax?

Phoenix has had his own experiences of gross media exploitation: The 911 call he made during his brother River's fatal drug overdose outside L.A.'s Viper Room was widely circulated on entertainment television shows, an event that sent the actor into a year-long retirement back in 1994. He has also had substance abuse problems, including a stint in rehab for alcoholism in 2005.

One might assume that Affleck, an art film hipster (he was one of the writers of Gus Van Sant's Gerry) knew exactly what he was doing. But then, in the last month, two women who worked on the film sued Affleck for sexual harassment; not the hookers in the film, mind you, but a producer and cinematographer. The cases were settled out of court. Are we to assume the accusations are a further part of the put-on, or evidence that Affleck's "social experiment" got out of hand?

I'm Still Here goes a long way to establish the obvious point that voyeuristic fascination with celebrity is bad for everyone involved, but it also demonstrates an even more glaring truth: People have a hard time saying no to celebrities' bad ideas, even when they want to make films like this one.

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I'm Still Here

  • Directed by Casey Affleck
  • Written by Casey Affleck and Joaquin Phoenix
  • Starring: Joaquin Phoenix
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About the Author
Film critic

Liam Lacey is a film critic for The Globe and Mail. More

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