I’m Still Here Dir. Casey Affleck

[Magnolia Pictures; 2010]

Styles: documentary/mockumentary?
Others: F for Fake, Don’t Look Back, Corey Haim: Me Myself And I

I’ll bet the majority of people who watch this film will be familiar with the baffling story of Joaquin Phoenix’s meteoric fall from grace and sanity. His oddball antics and the disastrously tacky hip-hop music he poured all of his creative energies into over the last three years caused a bit of internet static for a while. Then most of us kind of stopped paying attention. Throughout this entire incongruous period in the actor’s life, gossip rags would excitedly announce they had once and for all uncovered Mr. Phoenix’s imbalanced behavior as an elaborate hoax, the most intense and sustained embodiment of a character ever accomplished by an actor. Countering these sensational headlines were the impassioned pleas of his close friends to leave the poor tortured artist alone. Nothing has been born out conclusively one way or the other as to whether he’s playing a part or actually that screwed-up*. It is into this sea of uncertainty that I’m Still Here plops itself down and proceeds to leave the waters just as murky as it found them.

The film, Casey Affleck’s debut as a director, is a masterwork of biographical documentary moviemaking. He has produced an excellent and vivid narrative from random scenes in Phoenix’s life to such an extent that it seems impossible for the film to be the genuine article. Perhaps it’s because Affleck is married to Phoenix’s sister, or maybe the film really is just some elaborate hoax, but either way, the filmmaker is given an uncanny and unprecedented level of access to his subject. Sequences involving Phoenix ordering prostitutes online, meeting up with said prostitutes, and doing cocaine and other things with them would probably be left out of the final cut if the principal subject were anyone else. However, J.P. seems so thoroughly out of it that it makes the saddest kind of sense that he would decide to leave the basest grotesqueries of his life in the finished work.

Mr. Phoenix, who spends quite a bit of time during the feature blowing coke, smoking dank, and acting like an absolute dick toward everyone he knows, is consummately self-centered. His martyr complex is matched only by his paranoia, and if I’m Still Here is in fact totally legit, one can’t help but feel sorry for a man so completely detached from reality. The foil for most of Phoenix’s emotional outbursts is Antony Langdon, his longtime friend, personal assistant, and former guitarist for Spacehog. Ant, as Pheonix sometimes-affectionately refers to him, fills a role that is often sorely lacking in many portraits of megalomania: the victim. It is a decidedly guilty pleasure to watch people falling apart and acting like buffoons, but it’s pretty damn jarring when you’re treated to a palpable taste of the very real (or not?) fallout that it causes in other peoples’ lives. The debasement and abuse that Ant suffers throughout the film save the documentary from becoming an overblown and completely exploitative portrait of artistic hubris.

Orson Welles’ last great work, F for Fake, played with an audience’s implicit trust in the documentary as a form, exploring the life of an art forger and in turn raising questions as to whether the documentary itself was a forgery. Almost picking up where Welles left off, I’m Still Here also manages to blur the line between raw fact and artistic narrative, and ultimately asks whether (at least while you’re watching) the distinction really matters all that much. Affleck’s in-depth portrait of Phoenix is going to pique the interest of anyone interested in celebrity and its deeper implications concerning the human condition to be sure, but it is the movie’s central ambivalence regarding the importance of authenticity that will establish it as a genuinely perennial work of art, one that will surely merit a viewing every couple years or so.

*Although apparently people have seen him walking around with a shaved face and a relatively square haircut since the doc’s premiere, so take that for whatever it’s worth.

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