This is definitely a character study through and through. The acting is brilliant in this film, and you're fascinated with what will happen next and how these characters will react. Unfortunately, to me... only one of these characters is all that interesting. Joaquin Phoenix gives a brilliant performance, and you never know what he's going to do next in the film... but I found myself not really caring about him as a character or his story. There was no empathy. Nothing. In fact, I couldn't even get into the movie until at least 15-20 minutes in after Hoffman joins the film. (For reference, the part that hooked me was the first interview scene between the two guys. Hands down the best scene in the movie.) But even then, the latter half of that scene eventually pulls away from Hoffman and puts more focus on Phoenix's background and this relationship with this girl Doris... and my interest began to wane again. Outside of Phoenix's random jolts of insanity, I just couldn't get into his character. It didn't help that he's incredibly hard to understand, at least in the first half of the movie. So, of course, Hoffman was the character I loved watching. I just wish it would have ended with... more.
And I think "more" is the main issue with the film. The story is incredibly lacking. Everything else is great, but the story just isn't there. It introduces so many points and never follows through. A character sets up an affair with Phoenix that never goes anywhere. Hoffman's son's ambivalence toward the cause is discussed in one scene but never goes anywhere. And there is just so much like that throughout. There's no payoff to anything. And I don't necessarily need payoff in everything, especially if ambiguity is done well. But here... I don't think it is. And when your film centers around the battling minds of two insane people, you would expect some kind of explosive ending, maybe something like the bowling alley in There Will Be Blood. Nope. The film just... ends. No real resolutions. No major conflict. No tension. It's just... a choice is made and the film ends.
The movie is even vague on its themes. Even discussing the film afterward with Tom Clift and James Blake Ewing, we had trouble figuring out just what this movie's intent was. What's its purpose? What's it trying to tell us? And I still haven't really come up with an answer. The best we could come up with at that time was a study in the extremes of insanity. You have the uneducated hot shot wild card with Phoenix and the more charistmatic, enigmatic, intellectual force of Hoffman. Otherwise, I'm not too sure. To me, though, the biggest potential draw is the idea that the majority of the film might not even be real. Early in the film, Phoenix's sanity is questioned when he's accused of having visions, to which he responds it was only a dream. And there were a handful of moments throughout the film that build on this (the female nudist gathering and the phone call in the theater moments, for instance). I guess when you're weak-minded (and/or insane), you can be swayed to see anything a certain way.
This is also a movie not to watch with Mother. It is an incredibly sexually charged film. Freddie is like a teenage horndog delinquent. He'll literally have sex with anyone or anything... age, relation, marital status, and the fact it's just sand does not deter him in the slightest. He thinks about sex awake and asleep, as we (again) do see some hallucinations he has. And don't forget a masturbation scene and a handjob scene. Oh, and this film is not above fart jokes, either. There is more than one in this movie.
Overall, this is a movie to see for its performances (and, if nothing else, that first interview scene which is just phenomenal). It's, of course, shot beautifully, as well. But the acting is where it's at. You're definitely not here to see it for a story. So if you need a solid story for your dramas, look elsewhere (though there is a fair bit of comedy, so that does help). I can definitely see this win awards for Phoenix or Hoffman, though I wouldn't go so far to say Best Picture. It just doesn't come all together for me in the end. There are a couple lines, I believe in the same scene and/or back-to-back, that pretty much sum up the movie... and I'm sure it was on purpose. The first is "I could fall asleep, wake up, and not have missed a thing." The second is "He's making this whole thing up as he goes along; don't you see that?" And I do see that.
I Am McLovin!