Phoenix keeps audience guessing in I’m Still Here

Film of the Week: Joaquin Phoenix acts the fool in Affleck’s baffling portrait

BY Rachel Helyer-DonaldsonRichard Sayers LAST UPDATED AT 07:46 ON Thu 16 Sep 2010

Is he still acting or isn't he? The confusion over whether Joaquin Phoenix has actually given up acting is not exactly cleared up in his brother-in-law Casey Affleck's first documentary, I’m Still Here, which claims to chart the twice Oscar-nominated Phoenix's 2008 withdrawal from acting and his subsequent pitiful attempts to launch a hip-hop career.

Pre-publicity fuelled speculation over whether the film was for real or the ultimate celebrity spoof. And even now that I’m Still Here has had its premiere (the film is released in UK cinemas this Friday), the audience is still kept guessing.

Affleck and Phoenix present I'm Still Here as an up-close, fly-on-the-wall take on the travails of an actor who has had enough of being in the spotlight. But while the pair's motivation in making the movie may have been genuine, much of it feels flaky and farcical and even, at times, unintentionally comedic.

Some of the scenes - such as several run-ins with his personal assistants - feel staged, as do cameos from Ben Stiller (offering him a part in Greenberg) and P Diddy (in an amusing scene in which the fledgling rapper JoPho forces the hip-hop mogul to listen to his demo). Yet at least one of Phoenix's PAs, Anton, is thought to be an actor (one Antony Langdon).

Despite such evidence, at last week's Venice film festival Affleck continued to insist that I'm Still Here was for real. He told journalists that the film was an "unflinching" and "sympathetic" portrayal of Phoenix's breakdown, although he would not comment directly on whether certain scenes were staged.

While Phoenix was notably absent from the press conference, he was reportedly spotted in Venice looking slim and suave (a far cry from the overweight and scraggly-bearded 'JoPho' of the film). Yet at the Toronto film festival this week there were reports of a Phoenix imposter at large, making red carpet appearances and "accompanied by a massive entourage of security and scantily clad female groupies".

Enigmatic and inscrutable as ever, Phoenix is arguably still in character - unable to separate acting and life. Even if it is an elaborate hoax, what is for certain is that I'm Still Here has irrevocably altered Phoenix's public persona.

Additional research and reporting by Richard Sayers.

WHAT THE CRITICS ARE SAYING:

Leslie Felperin, Variety: "The result is an utterly fascinating experiment that apparently blends real and faked material to examine notions of celebrity, mental stability and friendship."

Xan Brooks, the Guardian: "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." (3/5 stars)

Roger Ebert, the Chicago Sun-Times: "The tragedy of Joaquin Phoenix's self-destruction has been made into I'm Still Here, a sad and painful documentary that serves little useful purpose other than to pound another nail into the coffin." (3/4 stars)

James Mottram, Total Film: "Superb. Real or not, I’m Still Here is an incisive access-all-areas portrait of the artist. Indulgent yes, but also gut-achingly funny and, if you buy into it, oddly moving." (4/5 stars) · 

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