"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 Baron 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..."
"In the end, the film suggests that Phoenix finds himself again within the bosom of his family," notes Derek Malcolm in the Evening Standard. "We hope so because, though the film shows him capable of being a befuddled clown, it also suggests a proper human being trying to make sense of a life in the public eye he never really wanted."
Matt Singer and Alison Willmore offer about an hour's worth of somewhat related listening: "This week on the IFC News podcast, inspired by the Joaquin Phoenix meltdown movie I'm Still Here, we talk about how celebrity tends to be represented on the big screen and why, and get our Judy Garland/Barbra Streisand on."
Updates, 9/8: "[T]he question of whether or not they're fucking with us is easily settled," decides Karina Longworth in the Voice. "[I]t's much harder to determine why they're fucking with us. And are they even fucking with us — the average viewer with no direct experience of what it feels like to be a celebrity, who can only make inferences and judgments based on the images that are presented to us — or are they fucking with their fellow celebrities, who stand to feel the force of the less than flattering aspects of themselves in Phoenix's portrayal?" The film's "apparent attack on the Hollywood machine is so insidery, so vicious, that to us — the everyday consumer — it's just not clear why this stunt needed to exist at all."
"The danger in almost every frame made me think less of Christopher Guest's ensemble improvs than Gus Van Sant's gutsy experiments, and Phoenix and Affleck have both worked with him," notes New York's David Edelstein. "On some level, I'm Still Here feels truly obsessive, as if Phoenix needed to act out his own destruction. I can't wait for his next big act."
For Time Out New York's Joshua Rothkopf, "between this rap-laden chronicle and his last official acting job, a knockout, in Two Lovers, he must be called the Brando of his generation."
"He has no onscreen moment when he appears clean or sober," notes Roger Ebert. "Whether drugs alone could account for his condition, or whether mental illness is also involved, is not for me to say."
"Vincent Gallo has been doing the irascible maniac act for a number of years now, so the film's characterisation of 'Joaquin Phoenix' doesn't even feel all that new or exciting," notes David Jenkins in Time Out London. "Now, a film of Gallo trying to be pleasant and civil for a year? I'd pay to see that."
For Simon Abrams, writing at Slant, the question now "becomes whether or not Phoenix will have the guts to make like Andy Kaufman and continue to make a career out of this new dickish act." If Phoenix "completely turns his back on I'm Still Here and admits it's a gag, then the whole thing will have been not only dumb and unfunny, but also completely pointless."
"Periodically [Affleck] frames Phoenix as a stolid lump being spliced to bits by paparazzi flashbulbs," notes Erin Donovan. "[T]here's a long, silent scene where the sad actor shares a table with his father that speaks volumes and the final shot (a takeoff on Michelangelo Antonioni's last scene in The Passenger) is a wonderful, contemplative moment to wrap up his noisy, chaotic film."
Updates, 9/9: So what is this film, anyway? IFC's Matt Singer lays out five possibilities.
"No one involved acts as if they have anything of interest to say about documentary or celebrity or self-parody," writes Ray Pride at Newcity Film. "For a better reveal during the end credits, check out Michelle Citron's doc-deconstructive Daughter Rite (1980)."
"If we are to lump this film... with other examples of a noticeable trend in doc-making this year, it should, in spite of its position on the fact<-->fiction spectrum, remain with a level of mystery like Exit Through the Gift Shop or an undeniable brilliance in narrative suspense and surprise like Catfish," argues Christopher Campbell at Cinematical. "Unfortunately, I'm Still Here is either way a meta bore of media manipulation and scrutiny wrapped up in a modern-day Cocksucker Blues meets Overnight, to name two docs less-known yet more necessarily viewed than this one."
"Phoenix adds nothing new to the discussion, except maybe a bitch-slap to all the celebrities whose public meltdowns pale in comparison," agrees Marjorie Baumgarten in the Austin Chronicle.
"If it's an act, then Phoenix is crazier than if it's for real," argues Sam Adams in the Philadelphia City Paper.
"Phoenix's extraordinary commitment to the role — and courage, too, given the wreckage that it's done to his image — isn't matched by the actual content of the film, which is full of feckless improvisation and absurdly overlong at 106 minutes," finds the AV Club's Scott Tobias.
"The routine emphasis on Phoenix's imprudence turns the movie's scrappy feel into something closer to Harmony Korine's Trash Humpers than, say, Banksy's Exit Through the Gift Shop," finds Eric Kohn at indieWIRE.
Michelle Orange for Movieline: "John Lennon had a lost year; I believe that's how he referred to 1975. Do you know why we don't have an excruciating video diary to mark each of his ever-deprecating nadirs? Because it was lost. You can read about it in your less reputable biographies, but Lennon himself and most of the people he caroused with never had much to say about it. It was a different time, true, and the interest in vivisecting celebrities was less keen, but Lennon was also quite open about his life. I think he knew — as all of us do, on some level — that his floundering into addiction, career uncertainty and infidelity comprised the least interesting year of his life."
"Affleck's grainy DV cameras linger on some shots so long, often following Phoenix from behind, that it feels like he's trying to remake Gerry by way of The Blair Witch Project," writes Tasha Robinson at the AV Club, "but it also feels like he's trying to bore through Phoenix and find the truth. Which may not be on display anywhere here."
Updates, 9/10: I'm Still Here is "a gloss on the mutually parasitic worlds of celebritydom and the entertainment media," writes Manohla Dargis in the New York Times. "Those are worlds Mr Phoenix knows well, having fed the beast since his breakout role as Nicole Kidman's poignantly thickheaded lover in To Die For, Gus Van Sant's 1995 comedy about the tragedy of fame." That said, "I'm Still Here isn't as merciless as To Die For, which was etched in acid by the screenwriter Buck Henry."
"The worst thing about I'm Still Here is the fact that it exists," writes Slate's Dana Stevens. "If you see one scene of I'm Still Here you have, almost literally, seen them all."
"If the ideas are shopworn, the filmmaking's worse," adds the Boston Globe's Ty Burr.
The Oregonian's Shawn Levy: "I truly don't care if Phoenix ever acts again, but I sincerely hope he gets himself more together than this."
Update, 9/13: Phoenix will be a guest on Letterman again on September 22, reports the AP.
Update, 9/16: "Casey Affleck wants to come clean," reports Michael Cieply in the NYT. I'm Still Here "was performance. Almost every bit of it. Including Joaquin Phoenix's disastrous appearance on David Letterman's late-night show in 2009, Mr Affleck said in a candid morning interview at a café here on Thursday. 'It's a terrific performance, it's the performance of his career,' Mr Affleck said." Phoenix "put his professional life on hold to star in a bit of 'gonzo filmmaking' modeled on the reality-bending journalism of Hunter S Thompson."
Updates, 9/18: For the Guardian, Damon Wise meets Affleck and finds him "friendly enough but very, very cautious. As well he might with two civil cases of sexual harassment hanging over his head, filed by the film's producer, Amanda White, and its cinematographer, Magdalena Gorka. He has his publicist with him at all times; unsurprisingly, the subject is never mentioned but Affleck is just as edgy about the movie, frequently hesitating and using phrases that, after an afternoon of TV interviews, already seem rote."
"David Letterman was in on the hoax as well." Movieline's Dixon Gaines has the story.