Director Casey Affleck's slyly crafted documentary I'm Still Here, chronicling the downward spiral of Walk the Line heavyweight Joaquin Phoenix, may or may not be an elaborate hoax. The more important question is this: Is the two-time Academy Award nominee's career irreversibly damaged?
Admittedly, it takes more than a few years' worth of ugly tabloid headlines and bizarre appearances to dent the reputation of one of this generation's most admired talents. But it's a question worth asking since Affleck has repeatedly vouched for the authenticity of some of the film's more repugnant sequences, which have spurred critics to question whether the film is actually a Andy Kaufman-like stunt or something much more revealing.
Could Phoenix reemerge from the ashes like fellow "once-fallen" actors Robert Downey Jr. and Mickey Rourke to bank a major superhero movie and subsequently grace the cover of Rolling Stone? The question preoccupied a number of critics as they parsed the cryptic new documentary.
- This Is a Risky Joke, and a year and a half is a long time to stay in character if this is a hoax, observes Robert Beames at Obsessed With Film. "Sacha Baron Cohen can do it, but he isn't playing himself. In fact, he is unrecognisable to most people when he isn't one of his creations. But Joaquin Phoenix is playing himself. He had nowhere to hide and laugh about it. And, if it's a joke then it is a risky one - as he alienates and insults people all over the entertainment industry."
- Phoenix Emerges as a Sort of Heroic Figure says Geoffrey MacNab at The Independent, who doesn't believe that the actor's brother-in-law (Affleck) would go to such lengths to invade his privacy without an "ulterior" motive: "If it is a hoax, Phoenix is giving one of the greatest method performances of all time."
- Who Cares? He's Just a 'Pampered Hollywood Prince' grumbles The Guardian's Xan Brooks. Phoenix "babbles on an on" and the whole gig, though compelling, is simply an "audacious little distraction; a stage-managed Hollywood Babylon that's at once gaudily entertaining and wilfully self-indulgent." And congratulations, it does paint, "a convincing portrait of a miserable, frustrated actor who has lived so long in the goldfish bowl that he can no longer conceive of a life beyond acting."
- One Thing's for Sure: Phoenix Can Still Act writes Deborah Young at The Hollywood Reporter, who seems to indicate the she believes the film is mostly a hoax: "Phoenix surrenders all privacy to his brother-in-law Affleck's invasive cameras. They follow him into hotel rooms and bed, voyeuristically watching while he uses recreational drugs, entertains two New York hookers and falls apart at the seams."
Career Wasn't All That Great in 2008 and the films that came after Walk
The Line (Reservation Road, Two Lovers) were largely avoided by audiences, notes Time's Richard Corliss. "In I'm Still Here, he can be heard railing that Reservation Road went nowhere, while the similar Revolutionary Road earned raves and a glut of Oscar nominations. He might have renounced acting, but he still had actor envy."