Billy Gray

I’m Still Here

In Movie Reviews on September 20, 2010 at 11:10 am

It’s hard to swallow criticisms of celebrity that come from celebrities. But only stars who have experienced stardom have the right to complain about it. It’s a paradoxical perk that the famous inevitably deploy to gripe about the undeserved perks that fame affords them.

Woody Allen made Celebrity, a movie lambasting, well, you know. Britney Spears sang “Piece of Me”, a tune about the travails of global superstardom in the TMZ Era. It helped revive Spears’ career and land her dozens of magazine covers. Now Joaquin Phoenix stars in I’m Still Here, a “maybe, maybe not” documentary about the actor’s undoing by the corrupt and phony business of being famous for losing his identity to the cameras. Friend and fellow movie star Casey Affleck directs, and diligently films everything short of Phoenix’s bowel movements. Don’t worry; Affleck does shoot Phoenix’s friend/hanger on Antony taking a crap. It happens to land on Phoenix’s face.

The defecation scene encapsulates all that I’m Still Here’s tries to say. Phoenix is in deep shit. But he only has himself to blame for letting fame and its attendant leeches into his life. (Joaquin’s brother, River, who had a memorable scene involving literal leeches in Stand by Me and died very famous and very young of a drug overdose, is never mentioned in the film.)

You’re not supposed to feel bad for Phoenix. You can barely tolerate the manchild. And for all the mystery swirling around I’m Still Here and how to categorize it, the movie plays like a pastiche of biopic genre tropes, including home video footage of its subject’s childhood. Phoenix and Affleck also revel in breaking the fourth wall, a vérité cliché that was last interesting when Norman Mailer took a hammer to Rip Torn’s head in Maidstone.

At least Mailer stepped outside of his own sizable ego to comment, however obliquely, to the tumultuous civil rights movement and political crosswinds of the late 1960s, when Maidstone was filmed. I’m Still Here never moves beyond Phoenix and the machismo gutter–there’s lots of porn, drugs and dick jokes–he and his friends inhabit. It’s like Jackass, but a lot less fun.

In message, I’m Still Here is a rambling, pedantic attack on cheap, manipulative celebrity. But that’s not enough. Formally, the film is a wholesale rejection of artistry. It’s a shame, because if the flick had been less defiantly roughhewn, it might have been less grating.  And not just for aesthetic reasons, but also because of the conflict between the lofty goals of the capital A Actor (a part in a Gus van Sant think piece, which Phoenix and Affleck both enjoyed) and its base byproduct (hamming it up with Regis and Kelly, which both endured) it would have exposed.

I’m Still Here’s most dissonant moment is the one every viewer has already seen.

Phoenix is only compelling during the Late Show with David Letterman debacle on which the movie pivots. I’ll give Affleck credit for making the viral and endlessly parodied routine seem fresh. Away from sycophants and accomplices and beside the crabby Letterman and hostile talk show audience, Phoenix crackles even if he doesn’t legitimately crack.

Hoax or not, when viewed in the context of I’m Still Here, Phoenix’s Letterman performance suggests he’ll always need an audience.

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