Late in 2008, Oscar-winning actor Joaquin Phoenix opened up on a red carpet to Extra with a bold pronouncement: "I want to take this opportunity ... also to give you the exclusive and just talk a little bit about the fact that this will be my last performance as an actor ... I'm not doing films anymore." He went on to say that he would be shifting his energies to building a career in music.
A seeming breakdown followed. A big beard appeared, bushy and unkempt. Disheveled hair, sticking out in every direction thanks to untended-to tangles and dreadlocks. Baffling and downright embarrassing public appearances. Assurances from Phoenix and people around him that his attempts to become a rapper were 100% sincere.
The entire spectacle was filmed by Casey Affleck, who collected the footage into the newly released film "I'm Still Here." Charting the year-plus following the actor's retirement, the movie stitches together a rough narrative of what ostensibly went on behind the scenes during that period. Now the movie is in theaters for a limited release, with a wide release to follow next Friday, and reviews are pouring in. Opinions are mixed overall, but every review at least alludes to the question hanging over the film: Was this all just a big method acting experiment? Or a hoax?
"It almost doesn't matter if the psyche in question is imploding artificially — as in staged — or organically," Claudia Puig writes in USA Today, sidestepping that central issue and judging "I'm Still Here" as a work of film. "It's just so unpleasant to watch two hours of unrelenting bad behavior and grandiose delusions."
Dana Stevens, writing for Slate, has a similar response. She opens with a knockout punch: "The worst thing about 'I'm Still Here' is the fact that it exists." And she goes on to conclude, "Joaquin Phoenix may be the one going under, but it was Casey Affleck whose pockets I felt like stuffing with rocks."
Village Voice writer Karina Longworth addresses the film's hype directly. "Perhaps it goes without saying that 'Here' was more provocative when it couldn't be seen, when it existed for most of us purely in the realm of rumor." She points to an early report claiming — falsely — that the film would contain "more male frontal nudity than you'd find in some gay porn."
Roger Ebert, writing for the Chicago Sun-Times acknowledges the film's faults in little more than a sentence, focusing instead on the subject and the picture of him that is painted. "Phoenix comes across as a narcissist interested only in himself," Ebert writes. "He is bored with acting. He was only a puppet. He can no longer stand where he's told, wear what he's given, say what is written. It's not him. He has lost contact with his inner self."
Ebert's write-up is less a review and more a personal appeal to a talented performer. While he admits that he will be "seriously pissed" if this all turns out to be a hoax, he ultimately concludes, "In 'I'm Still Here' all [Phoenix] proves is that he is hurtling toward the same pointless oblivion that killed his brother River. It is a waste of the privilege of life."
It is Entertainment Weekly critic Owen Gleiberman who most effectively cuts through the hype and strikes at the core of what audiences are likely seeing in "I'm Still Here." He writes, "Affleck uses Phoenix's descent to forge a riveting — and, in its way, cautionary — case study of a celebrity self-destructively addicted to his own psychodrama. Phoenix may say that he's left acting behind, but whether he's trolling the Internet for hookers, trying (hilariously) to convince Diddy to produce his rap album, getting huffy with an entertainment journalist at a junket for 'Two Lovers,' or lashing out at fame while still enjoying all of its perks, the movie understands that his Last Honest Man in Showbiz routine is really a performance — even if it's one the actor himself is only dimly aware of."
Check out everything we've got on "I'm Still Here."
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