Imagine that your wife’s brother, who is also one of your best friends, is in trouble. He is ruining his health, career and reputation with habitual drug use and other self-destructive behavior. He seems to be deluded, yet his business associates and friends are enabling his behavior. A tragedy is unfolding, and no one seems to care.
What do you do? Do you…
1. Stage an intervention, and work to get your brother-in-law the help he so desperately needs?
2. Ignore the problem, and hope he straightens himself out on his own, or…
3. Direct a documentary with his deterioration as its subject, exploiting your sister’s brother to boost your filmmaking career and make some money, while making sure that his humiliation gets the maximum public exposure?
If you are Casey Affleck apparently, the clear answer is #3. I just saw “I’m Still Here,” Affleck’s fascinating, sad and unforgivable portrait of what passes for Joaquin Phoenix these days. The former movie star, best known for his bravura portrayal of Johnny Cash in “I Walk the Line,” is now a toxic combination of addict, depressive and egomaniac, pursuing a hopeless career in hip-hop for which he has approximately as much talent as Dick Cheney, and I may be being unfair to Dick. In the film, Phoenix looks dirty and disoriented, but also manages to be thoroughly dislikable; the loyalty of whatever fans the actor may have left from his movie days will not survive his best friend’s ruthless exposure of his worst moments…and there do not appear to be any good ones.
How can Affleck justify this horror show? His exploitation of Phoenix is like filming a drowning man and doing nothing—in fact, it isn’t merely like that, that’s exactly what it is. We have seen similar cruelty in reality shows, such as the voyeuristic Anna Nicole Show, which showed the late professional bimbo wandering through her days in a blowsy, drugged-out fog, and the sad Scott Baio reality show, which paid a washed-up former child star to let every woman he had ever known tell him what a jerk he had been to them. None of those shows, however, were produced by the relatives of the rotting ex-stars, which is what one would expect. What one doesn’t expect is for a person who should be reaching out to help his brother-in-law and friend to give him a push over the edge to oblivion instead.
I’m hoping that there is part of this story that we don’t know. Maybe Affleck made a desperation deal with Phoenix that he would do the documentary if his brother-in-law would agree to get a psychiatric evaluation. If not, “I’m Still Here” is Hollywood at its coldest…a betrayal not only of the duties of family and friendship, but also an abdication of every human being’s obligation to care about others.
UPDATE: Well, now Casey Affleck is claiming the film was a hoax. I’m not convinved, but never mind. The ethics verdict is only different in its details.