By Jonathan Kiefer

You may wonder why, after

Gone Baby Gone

, Ben Affleck didn’t again cast his brother Casey as a cop or crook in his new movie,

The Town

. After all, the most brother-like role (played by Jeremy Renner) involves sociopathic tendencies, which 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—from famed showbiz flameout and pseudo-retiree Joaquin Phoenix—with which to contend.

Apparently, the younger Affleck has moved on to coldly pummeling audiences.

His movie is called

I’m Still Here

, 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 ostensible public manifestations of an intense, protracted, private breakdown.

And now we all can see Phoenix 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 David Letterman this week, presumably to promote this film whose ostensible purpose was to establish a context for his last, mutinous appearance on Letterman—the film is also the epitome of a publicity stunt. It’s by celebrities, for celebrities, and it presumes gratitude from the rest of us for the access we’ve been granted. And that’s giving it the benefit of the doubt as 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 ready-made 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.

I’m Still Here

Directed by Casey Affleck

With Joaquin Phoenix, Sean “P Diddy” Combs and Antony Langdon

The Screen

108 min.