You may wonder why, after Gone Baby Gone, Ben Affleck didn’t again cast his brother Casey as one of the cops or crooks in his new movie, The Town. After all, the most ostensibly brother-like role in that film, played by Jeremy Renner, does involve a tendency toward sociopathy that Casey Affleck, last seen coldly pummeling women to death in The Killer Inside Me, very plainly understands.
Maybe the reason is that Casey was busy making his directorial debut, and accordingly had a loose-canon brother-figure performance of his own to contend with, from famed showbiz flameout and pseudo-retiree Joaquin Phoenix. Apparently the younger Affleck has moved on to coldly pummeling audiences.
I’m Still Here, his movie is called, and that about sums it up. It’s a portrait of a self- tortured artist in the process of torturing himself. And others. Being his brother-in-law in real life, whatever that is these days, Affleck was able and willing to attend Phoenix’s awkward withdrawal from film acting and his subsequent, more awkward foray into hip-hop—the apparent public manifestations of an intense, protracted, private breakdown.
And now we all can see him fattening up and flipping out, getting high, getting low, berating his impossibly tolerant two-man entourage, sucking up to P. Diddy, and really, really suffering. As a record of a catastrophic spacing out, I’m Still Here is a lot like one of those NASA special reports that comes out a year after a shuttle disaster, and almost as fun.
And with the question of its fakeness long ago mooted—Phoenix reportedly will be back on Letterman this week, presumably to promote this film whose ostensible purpose was to establish a context for his last, mutinous appearance on Letterman—it is also the epitome of a publicity stunt: by celebrities, for celebrities, with the presumption of gratitude from the rest of us for the access we’ve been granted. And that’s giving it the benefit of the doubt, for trying to be anything more than a sort of suck-on-this offering to the parasitic media class that taunts celebrities into self-abasement.
The not-fake nuisance of I’m Still Here is that in lieu of probing, it merely perpetuates. (Hence the title.) It is not exactly part of the solution. Even in crypto-jest, Affleck should have had the courage to investigate the most readymade of Phoenix’s demons: his own brother’s death. Think of the potential resonance there. Who knows what vulnerabilities, what moments of truth, it might dislodge? Sure, the let’s-talk-about-River angle might seem crass and obvious and unfresh, but isn’t that just what we were going for? Apparently there’s no such thing as too much cynicism.