'I'm Not Here': Film Review

A strong central performance isn't helped by many of the elements surrounding it.
3/8/2019

J.K. Simmons plays an alcoholic dealing with traumatic memories in a character study directed by his wife, Michelle Schumacher.

A suicidal alcoholic takes a grim walk down memory lane in I'm Not Here, a showcase for J.K. Simmons directed and co-written by the actor's wife, Michelle Schumacher. Observing three general periods in the man's life, it finds self-destructive patterns repeating amid brief opportunities for happiness. Following a few years after 3 Geezers, Schumacher's reviled feature directing debut starring Simmons and Tim Allen, I'm Not Here represents a great leap forward, but still doesn't hold out much promise for future efforts that aren't built around performances by Simmons.

We first see Simmons' Steve Harrison in a darkened room, weeping with a gun to his head, as a child's laughter wafts faintly through the soundtrack. That would be a memory of Steve's son Trevor, who exited his life (tragically, the film hints) decades ago, along with his wife, Karen (Maika Monroe).

Cut to the morning of this fateful day, when an emaciated Steve awakens to a house he has stopped trying to maintain. Evidently in the midst of drinking himself to death, he's done paying his bills; when he looks in the mirror, he's occasionally haunted by the memory of his virile younger self (Sebastian Stan) being cooed over by a loving Karen. Flashing back further, we see the Stevie (Iain Armitage) as a six year-old, an innocent bystander to his own father's alcoholism. Dad (Max Greenfield) wasn't a mean drunk — far from it, he was loving, and not in a sloppy, mawkish way — but he wasn't equipped to meet the expectations of his more straitlaced wife (Mandy Moore). The two divorced while Stevie was a kid.

Back in the present, Steve is screening his calls when his mother phones to wish him a happy 60th birthday. (The voice on the answering machine doesn't sound like that of an 80- or 90 year-old, and when we spend time with 20-something Steve, the film's few attempts to conjure that time period fail to convince.) As she leaves her message, Mom mentions that Steve's ex has died, going on to observe that Karen never remarried after their split. What more reason does a drunk need to spend a milestone birthday spiraling into self-pity?

As we move from one setting to another, the director has better luck with her male castmembers than her female ones, and that's not only because the script (co-written by Tony Cummings) is so much more interested in the men's struggles. Simmons gives the strongest performance by a wide margin, though young Armitage is deeply sympathetic as a boy reluctant to take sides in, or even to acknowledge, his parents' conflict.

As the film starts making connections between different generations' traumas, Schumacher twists the knife a bit, dragging out a memory we assume will trigger the end of Steve and Karen's marriage. (Simmons' Oz costar Harold Perrineau makes a friendly cameo in an uncomfortable moment.) The suspense feels more manipulative than natural here — putting viewers in an already uncomfortable position for the picture's ambiguous end, which would be problematic even if everything preceding it had played perfectly.

Production company: Rubber Tree Productions
Distributor: Gravitas Ventures
Cast: J.K. Simmons, Sebastian Stan, Maika Monroe, Mandy Moore, Max Greenfield, Iain Armitage
Director: Michelle Schumacher
Screenwriters: Tony Cummings, Michelle Schumacher
Producers: Eric Radzan, Michelle Schumacher, Randle Schumacher
Director of photography: Pietro Villani
Production designer: Lauree Martell
Costume designer: Greg LaVoi
Editor: Michelle Schumacher
Composer: Nima Fakhrara
Casting directors: Riva Cahn-Thompson, Mary Vernieu

76 minutes