On the strength of its placement in Gareth Higgins's "just outside the top 10" list of the films of 2010, and also thanks to its available via Netflix streaming, I watched I'm Still Here a few nights back. Or rather, I tried watching it, but it wasn't easy, and I think I know why: it was an aimless wreck.
Take it from one half of the film's creative team, Casey Affleck
There are ideas in the film that are interesting to me. I don't have a point to make, though. If it feels like a cautionary tale, what would be the warning? When you have a dream and others tell you, you are no good, give it up? Don't become famous? Prepare, practice and use stepping stones? Or maybe don't be incredibly mean to those around you? Some things seems too obvious, some seem lacking. I don't know the point. I only know that it is of course in some way about celebrity culture. It's about fame, in some way. I don't know what it says exactly but I know that it makes me wonder when I watch it. I'm OK with that. [emphases mine]While I approve of artists who decline to make overconfident assertions about their own works or the meanings thereof, this degree of aimlessness tells us something important about the topics that Affleck thinks, but isn't sure, the film addresses. Namely, it suggests that if your name is Casey Affleck, and if your brother-in-law is Joaquin Phoenix, you can film each other going through motions you don't bother to shape into anything coherent, and then expect the resulting footage to attract large paying audiences. How many good films didn't get made in the same year as this one, in which one of Phoenix's abused lackeys defecates on the sleeping Phoenix (or pretends to, or whatever)?
Which is to say, celebrities have a very hard time here on planet earth in first decade of the twenty-first century. Affleck continues:
We obsess about celebrities. We create them, build myths around them, and then hunt them and destroy them. I don't know where its taking us or what it means but I know we do it. I have seen a lot of it myself.I have no basis for doubting that Affleck and Phoenix have seen plenty of this, but they showed almost none of it in the film they made. They showed very nearly the reverse -- a celebrity, Joaquin Phoenix, behaving like a depraved, self-regarding asshole to everyone around him, and engaging in kinds of "hunting" -- hunting for drugs and prostitutes (these are said to be staged incidents), hunting for something to inspire terrible rap lyrics, hunting for new lows in personal hygiene, hunting for attention and credibility from people who ought to know better than to take his musical vanity project seriously. To their credit -- or so it seemed -- Mos Def, Diddy, and David Letterman refused the offer to be the prey in this.
Or maybe they, like Ben Stiller is said to have done, these celebrities actually participated in the joke -- whatever joke it is. It is not a funny or interesting joke, and if I were feeling slightly less charitable, I would suggest this film only furthers the idea that celebrities are shallow, selfish monsters who deserve the public's dehumanizing scorn.
The film gestured at a deeper portrait of Phoenix in a couple of opening scenes showing him as a child taking a daring dive in a creek, and then performing in a child street band, and closing with more recent footage of him wading despondently through another creek, or maybe the same creek. It's possible these were meant to invoke the "real" Joaquin Phoenix that celebrity-millionaire status has cruelly taken from him, but they're just thrown in without connective tissue. Affleck doesn't know what the point was, or where exactly he was trying to go with it, and neither do I.