I’m Not Here amounts to little more than navel-gazing through bleary, red-rimmed eyes.
A grizzled, barely-clothed J.K. Simmons mopes around a squalid dwelling, drinks copiously and picks up random stuff. Nearly each object that Simmons’ Steve touches evokes a vivid flashback to his childhood or his young adult years, providing the backstory to his current lowly state, stories which run in parallel throughout I’m Not Here. Director Michelle Schumacher (who is married to Simmons) tells the story of a man at the end of his rope; or, in the case of the opening scene, at the end of the barrel of the handgun he presses to his temple.
If Steve so much as knocks over a salt shaker, we’re instantly transported back to little Stevie (Iain Armitage) doing the same thing in his broken home with his alcoholic father (Max Greenfield). We see the parallels in young Steve’s (Sebastian Stan) own failed marriage, which also stemmed from recklessness and alcoholism and was ultimately punctuated by tragedy. The modern-day Steve, whose blunt answering-machine greeting consists of nothing but the film’s three-word title, stares at the television as he listens to automated calls about impending utility shut-offs. Enduring bouts of diarrhea and moving gingerly when ambulating through a home filled with almost nothing but mothballed memories, Steve finds a small victory simply in rustling up some stray replacement batteries for the TV remote in order to pass the time before the lights go dark.
Soon, the answering machine messages grow more personal. A call from his mom (Mandy Moore, both in flashback and, anachronistically, in voice on the modern-day phone) informs him that his ex-wife, Karen (Maika Monroe), has passed away. This death prompts a call from Steve’s former best friend Adam (David Wexler), the guy Karen fucked before asking the bibulous Steve for a divorce. This prompts Steve to pound laps down memory lane as he proceeds to fumble through the dusty, boxed-up relics of his past life while contemplating how it all went wrong.
A virtually wordless Simmons brings physical poignancy to a well-worn role, but it’s not enough to salvage I’m Not Here. Without spoken lines beyond the occasional grunt or mumbled curse, Simmons relies on an emaciated physique, downtrodden posture and subtle facial movements to convey the desperation of a man with nothing left to live for. Schumacher, who also co-wrote the screenplay, also adds an otherworldly, borderline-paranormal element to the film that unfortunately goes woefully underexplored. Reminiscent of a Haruki Murakami novel, young Steve looks through opening elevator doors to see his older self changing a lightbulb, and the time warps and dimension shifts continue sporadically as the two versions of the same man come face to face in mirrors and elsewhere. But without wholeheartedly committing to them, the film’s brief forays into magical realism do little to counteract the heavy-handedness of the exposition-laden flashbacks induced by virtually everything Steve touches. Failing to find a compelling point to its moroseness, or at least a unique take on the drunken sad-sack trope, I’m Not Here amounts to little more than navel-gazing through bleary, red-rimmed eyes.