We meet Steve at what might be his lowest — 60, alone, weeping and brooding. It’s a bottle-by-the-bed/pistol to the head moment.
Steve, played by J.K. Simmons, long ago discovered what the writer Mark Lawrence observed in his “Prince of Thorns” — that “memories are dangerous things. You turn them over and over, until you know every touch and corner, but still you’ll find an edge to cut you.”
Stuck in a darkened home, with only an answering machine and his grimmest recollections for company, Steve is in the middle of what could be a terminal binge of booze and regrets, his outgoing answer message summing him up more than we realize.
“I’m not here.”
The film of that title is a sad and supposed-to-be-touching series of flashbacks brought forth by one answering machine message — tucked in between the “final notice” calls alerting him to the power and water that are about to be cut off.
It’s from his mother. “Karen died,” she says. “She never remarried…I’m sorry.”
From there, “I’m Not Here” takes us into two earlier timelines. Steve wanders the dimly lit rooms, rummaging for stashed bottles and mementos — a child’s bicycle here, an AA sobriety token there.
We see Steve as he (Sebastian Stan is younger-Steve) and pal Adam (David Wexler) drunkenly try out a two-headed stand-up act. It was the night Steve met Karen (Maika Monroe), almost giddy hook-up that led that “romantic” screen romance cliche — a slam against this wall, then that one, dishes and lamp-upending first sexual encounter that is Hollywood shorthand for “heat.”
Getting stuck in an elevator within minutes of their marriage?
“I hope this isn’t a sign.”
It is. Just because they were both tipsy way back when they met doesn’t mean that BOTH of them are trapped in “The Days of Wine and Roses.” Steve’s an alcoholic, and the desultory honeymoon sex proves the old maxim, “Nothing more whets the appetite, and dulls the performance.”
The other timeline for Steve’s flashbacks take him to his childhood, where Stevie (Iain Armitage of “Big Little Lies” and “Young Sheldon”) is closely-supervised by his classic early ’60s mom (Mandy Moore) who teaches him how to properly brush his teeth and the ways of the world as well.
“You’ve got to take better care of yourself, Stevie. You only get one life. Don’t waste it, like I did.”
Helluva thing to tell a kid.
His dipsomaniacal dad (Max Greenfield) dotes on him, plays with Stevie and fights with his mother over his drinking. There aren’t many sights sadder than a boy of eight pouring his dad’s drinks, and trying them for himself.
Stevie is destined for the trauma of divorce court, the boy stuck in the middle between warring adults. And that isn’t even the worst of it.
Co-writer/director Michelle Schumacher (Mrs. J.K. Simmons) lets us swoon at the romance of a young couple swirling around the room — the camera circling them in joy — to “I Melt With You,” and see the connection between Steve and Karen. But it’s the grim aftermath, the “Sunday morning coming down” with Steve waking up after passing out drunk in their son’s bed, that dominates “I’m Not Here.”
Steve, this script suggests, was pre-destined for misery. Children of divorce get divorced themselves, children of alcoholics…
A child pleading to a judge “I want my family back” tugs at the heart, but get used to heartbreak, kid. You’re pretty much bred for it.
The Oscar-winning Simmons broods well. He looks positively hollowed-out here, broken and wishing the liquor would ease his pain or kill him, that he could change at least one of the tragedies that mark his life.
Greenfield and Moore make a convincing, conventional doomed “Mad Men” era couple. Sebastian Stan — Bucky Barnes in the “Captain America” movies– ably gets across a younger Steve unable to shake off, even at that age, his past and his seeming pre-destiny.
Monroe (“It Follows”) has too little to play, her scenes and situations limited to cliches.
And that’s a shadow hanging over the whole film, its myopic main setting and its flashbacks covering familiar tropes of memory the way movies have always imagined them and alcoholism traveling the same arc it always does on screen. It’s a mopey, wallowing in the too-obvious point it never gets around to making.
“I’m Not Here” is never more than a short, morose melodrama whose chief shortcoming is that there’s not more that’s new, that there’s not more “here” here.
MPAA Rating: unrated
Cast: J.K. Simmons, Sebastian Stan, Maika Monroe, Mandy Moore
Credits: Directed by Michelle Schumacher, script by Tony Cummings, Michelle Schumacher A Gravitas release
Running time: 1:17