Not a spoiler….Career suicide as conceptual art?
Spare a thought for Joaquin Phoenix, a pampered Hollywood prince who lives to rap and raps to live," writes the Guardian‘s Xan Brooks. I’m Still Here which premiered in Venice over the Labor Day Weekend before screening in Toronto and opening in Los Angeles on Friday, "is a supposedly access-all-areas documentary… directed by Casey Affleck, Phoenix’s brother-in-law, who clearly had no qualms in showing the actor vomiting copiously into a toilet bowl or snorting coke off a groupie’s breasts, or being defecated upon by his vengeful personal assistant. I’m not sure I buy any of it, but the film is certainly compelling. Like a pair of po-faced co-conspirators, Affleck and Phoenix have cooked up an audacious little distraction; a stage-managed Hollywood Babylon that’s at once gaudily entertaining and wilfully self-indulgent."
"Phoenix, the brooding, respected, totally serioso actor in Walk the Line and Gladiator, has been a gossip writer’s dream subject for two years now," writes Time‘s Richard Corliss, "from October 2008, when he announced he was renouncing movies to be a rap artist, through to his infamous Feb 11, 2009, gig on The Late Show with David Letterman, when the star showed up in his fat bearded-guy look and glazed, incoherent persona, cuing Letterman to ask, ‘What can you tell us about your days with the Unabomber?’… ‘I can tell you, there’s no hoax,’ an ostensibly exasperated Affleck said at Monday’s press conference…. In the great Joaquin debate — is he crazy like a loon, or like a fox? — the smart Hollywood money is on fox. Phoenix and Affleck, the argument goes, are staging a complex hoax, a deadpan impression of the mad artist, taking Sacha Baro Cohen’s Ali G, Borat and Brüno to the next stage. Well, if so, this is the most minimalist put-on of all time, or a new Zen form of performance art, seeing as Phoenix has not worked publicly, as either an actor or a rapper, since the I’m Still Here shoot was completed in March 2009. Nor does the film offer a coda of Joaquin’s recent emotional whereabouts. Not even Baron Cohen would dare to create a character he keeps in hiding for a year and a half."
"Early on, it is easy to be repelled by I’m Still Here but viewers’ sympathies are likely to turn," proposes Geoffrey Macnab in the Independent. "In his own Quixotic way, Phoenix, who becomes a figure of ridicule during his transformation, is also a heroic figure. He is desperately trying to reinvent himself in the full glare of the media. You can’t blame him for his disenchantment with the celebrity-obsessed culture that has made him so rich, famous and unhappy."
"The most surprising discovery about I’m Still Here is that the possibility of it being a ruse doesn’t much diminish its value," finds Guy Lodge at In Contention. "Indeed, the film is probably more interesting viewed as an immensely committed, avant-garde performance piece by Phoenix (‘career suicide as conceptual art,’ to quote one critic I spoke to after the screening) than as an ingenuous documentary — in which case, for all Affleck’s claims of wishing to offer a compassionate study of his friend, the film is a rather narrow, and even exploitative, work."
Variety‘s Leslie Felperin senses "that what Phoenix went through is not unlike the experience of the protagonist in Sam Fuller’s 1963 feature Shock Corridor. By pretending to be crazy, Phoenix may actually have gone a little nuts by staying in character too long (Method gone completely mad), perhaps ruining or at least temporarily damaging his career in the process."
"If he wanted to truly end his career, this movie was an effective way to do it," remarks Anne Thompson. "But there’s still too much performing going on…"