You have to admire the performance of Simmons in I’m Not Here. His worn out, alcohol-soaked visual is so expressive and mesmerizing, with a Bale-like physical transformation. Unfortunately, the films’ flashbacks are artificial and forced upon you, despite its good intentions.
I can’t remember the last time an actor like J. K. Simmons, who broke into Hollywood stardom at the ripe of 59 years old with Whiplash. A character in television shows for much of the ‘90s, he caught a rising star in most Jason Reitman films, with his performance in Juno getting some abnormally positive attention for himself. He hasn’t wasted an opportunity since, acting in several high-profile films, helming a well-received television show, and offers a mesmerizing performance in his new film, I’m Not Here. I just wish it wasn’t saddled with half a film that is so contrived.
The film begins with Simmons’s character Steve laying prone in a single bed, naked with a bed sheet barely covering his bottom half, in the center of the room with clothes and trash all around him. He turns over, revealing an almost malnourished appearance, with his ribs sticking out like sore thumbs (chronic alcoholism just doesn’t lead to big beer bellies; the truth is, it can lead to serious weight loss as well as digestive issues and disorders). He wanders around his apartment thinking of important life events that were caused by drunkenness, even as a child, and also as a young adult.
The actors who play Steve in the flashbacks are Iain Armitage (Big Little Lies and Young Sheldon) and Sebastian Stan (Marvel’s Bucky Barnes/Winter Soldier) that are alarmingly artificial. Armitage’s portion shows his life being torn apart by his parent’s divorce (played by Mandy Moore and Max Greenfield) because of his father’s drinking. Later, the film clumsily attempts to convey the reason behind his chronic self-medication and is muddled on the matter.
Stan’s role as Steve is as a young man meeting his wife for the first time while performing at a comedy club (seriously, it’s that type of film), as they swap their family tragedies. The difference is, the new eye of his affection, Karen (Maika Monroe: It Follows, and the worst film of 2018, Tau) can handle personal tragedies without the substance abuse, where Steve can’t. He becomes a functional alcoholic, losing his job, despite having so much to live for, like a beautiful wife and young son. Most of the scenes here don’t ring true, with its manufactured and hokey setting that gives a Lifetime movie feel.
I’m Not Here was written and directed by Michelle Schumacher, who is also the wife of J.K. Simmons, and her film is will surely be considered negatively as a whole. The issue is that one half of the film is so well done, visually striking, with a masterful use of lights, shadows, tone; you must wonder what happened on the cutting-room floor during the film’s flashback sequences. Some types of films need to be remade and not just the good (Point Break) to great ones (Diabolique), but the imperfect films with hidden greatness.
The scripted flashback scenes could have been cleverly played out, allowing the viewer to piece the puzzle together as it arrived at its climax since memory loss is a byproduct of chronic, functioning alcoholism. Instead, they are played straight-forward, which is fine, but the end of the film suddenly takes a 180-degree turn that can be looked at as, for lack of a better term, a cop-out, to coddle the film’s audience. The final scenes are so ambiguous; you could argue they were made up in the protagonists’ head, as a way for Steve to carry on, or they may have happened, it’s all up to your interpretation. Unfortunately, everything in this half leading up to the closing moments are hokey and land face-first into saccharine territory.
The performance of J.K. Simmons is worth a star alone, and if he wasn’t in the film, I’m certain this would have never been released theatrically (the film has been in holding for nearly 2 years since being released on the festival circuit). His worn out, alcohol-soaked visual is so expressive and mesmerizing; if a match was lit around him, I’m sure we’d be calling in Kurt Russell to snuff the flames (that’s a Backdraft reference, for anyone wondering what I’m talking about). To go along with a Christian Bale-like physical transformation, this would surely be held in high regards with the likes of Nicolas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas or Nick Nolte in Affliction.
We will just have to hope the film is remade someday with the J.K. Simmons’ role/half still intact, and with the same care taken with the other.
M.N. Miller has been a film and television writer for Ready Steady Cut since August of 2018 and is patiently waiting for the next Pearl Jam album to come out.