REVIEW: If Only Joaquin Phoenix's Lost Year in I'm Still Here Had Stayed Lost

Movieline Score:

There is one moment of true terror in I'm Still Here, Casey Affleck's dickish, realish account of his brother-in-law Joaquin Phoenix's "lost year," and it does not involve the whoring, coke-hoovering, excrement-eating or other Jackassery otherwise on copious display.

Near the end of the longest year I've spent in a theater in recent memory -- and after Phoenix's notorious Letterman appearance, an event that is positioned as the culmination of the actor's protracted career suicide -- Phoenix is shown performing in his new guise as a rapper at a Miami club. He barely has the energy to bomb; it's more like a shuffle-y, slurry fizzle. Affleck shoots the scene from the back of the club, so we get a doubled look at the stage: the audience is glued not to Phoenix but the monitors on the cameras they are holding up, like zombies worshipping at their sacrificial altar. A man is falling apart on stage while surrounded by blank faces and eager, feeding cameras: the void staring into the void. Was anybody actually there? And what was I looking at?

John Lennon had a lost year; I believe that's how he referred to 1975. Do you know why we don't have an excruciating video diary to mark each of his ever-deprecating nadirs? Because it was lost. You can read about it in your less reputable biographies, but Lennon himself and most of the people he caroused with never had much to say about it. It was a different time, true, and the interest in vivisecting celebrities was less keen, but Lennon was also quite open about his life. I think he knew -- as all of us do, on some level -- that his floundering into addiction, career uncertainty and infidelity comprised the least interesting year of his life.

Thirty-five years later, this stock chapter in the star narrative has been both privileged and downgraded: Once positioned as an artistic crucible, in the hyper-visual age it is simply fodder for spectacle. It would seem that Affleck and Phoenix decided to give the people exactly what the success of reality and tabloid entertainment shows suggests they want -- total, raging meltdown -- and invited them to kneel down and choke on it. There is certainly nothing remotely personal involved, despite opening footage of Phoenix as a boy, and even a brief shot of his big brother River, whose tragic self-destruction he was witness to and seems to be painfully pantomiming here.

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  • hollywoodjeffy says:

    "Spector-Headed Stepchild"! Brilliant!

  • Am says:

    Between Michelle and Stephanie, this is fast becoming my favorite site for reviews.

  • buzz_clik says:

    I followed Steph Z here, but damn if Michelle Orange doesn't know how to shape and polish phrases into well-turned gems. Great write-up. Also, Michelle has confirmed my long-held suspicions on this awfully protracted project: "I don’t know about the rest of you, but I stopped guessing about 13 months ago, and this film did nothing to re-engage my interest."

  • This is rad. Well done!

  • You're Dumb says:

    "meltdowns are still not inherently interesting"
    that's your personal opinion, but it hardly expresses the truth. reality shows and tabloid journalism don't seem to be going out of business, and they thrive on public meltdowns.
    why does this site have the most incompetent writers? i don't care if i disagree with an opinion. they should at least be thought out and expressed intelligently. every time i find a poor review, it ends up being from this site.

  • Mayor McCheese says:

    This is a great review. Thanks, Michelle, for nailing it. A well-thought out, and intelligently expressed review.

  • How many people plan on watching the video music awards tonight?

  • Mayor McCheese says:

    I just realized why it is that you nailed this one for me.
    The reason I, personally, stopped caring 13 months ago whether this was a hoax or not, is because Joaquin and Casey were trying to have it both ways from the beginning. On the one hand, one senses that Joaquin would have loved to cross over successfully, but on the other hand he and Casey were also insulating themselves from the possibility of failure, by having the fall-back posture that this was all just high-concept art, and therefore, any outcome was OK with them. It is boring precisely because it risks nothing, and therefore nobody cares how it turns out. All they are left with is the prospect of wallowing in the shit that they find down there at the nexus of narcissism and self-pity.