From the very beginning of Joaquin Phoenix's supposed downward spiral - his quitting acting to become a hip-hop star, his infamously bizarre antics on Letterman, his becoming a joke for other celebrities, like Ben Stiller, to mock on awards shows - the word 'hoax' has been tossed around as willy-nilly as dick jokes at a celebrity roast. Is it a hoax? Is it not? Director Casey Affleck (and brother-in-law to Phoenix) has admitted to such, but even so, does it even really matter? No one in the right mind ever took Phoenix seriously during his supposed (and failed) transition to rap star. It was never about whether it is or whether it isn't - it is all about the performance. It is all about, not necessarily pulling the wool over everyone's eyes (though I suppose much of the media were snookered), but how far one can take this type of funny business Phoenix and Affleck are perpetrating on their puppeted public. Exactly how low can these modern day hucksters go? Pretty low it seems, but in reaching those depths, Phoenix and Affleck have created a fascinating work that can be described as mean-spirited, antagonistic, shameless, unscrupulous - revolting and repugnant even - but also as the ballsiest form of meta-satire since Andy Kauffman's Man-on-the-moon escapades of twenty-five years ago.
Managing to piss off more fans than those (like me) who thought it a great ride of faux self-indulgence (though I am sure it is not all faux!) Phoenix's con-game tirades and all-around malicious skylarking may be more than too much for many to take - for many to even understand. So many have either taken Phoenix's downfall as gospel truth (because, you know, the media is always factual!?) or have taken it as an affront to their tender sensibilities. Either way, I believe, at least in part, it has been quite successful at hitting its intended mark(s). Flashing back and forth from long form reality TV to celebrity youtube breakdown video, Affleck has given life to his brother-in-law's self-sacrificing of his own demons in all-out screw you, bullshit regalia. Part art school fuck you, part Jackass Gone Wild, part Cleveland Steamer catharsis (the absolute apex of I'm Still Here's audacity and its very own low point as well) this film plays several riffs at once - and Phoenix follows suit with a multi-personality free-for-all of his very own. Similarly titled to Todd Haynes' Bob Dylan deconstruction I'm Not There, Phoenix takes a cue from that film as well, wearing different hats for different aspects of his already loose cannon personality. Granted, Affleck's film never reaches the cinematic heights of the Haynes' film, but the splitting of reality and celebrity is extremely similar. All in all, for those who can take the shit (literally at one point) of what Phoenix and Affleck are doing, it is well worth the bumpy (and somewhat chaotic) ride. For those who cannot, those who probably already watch as much of that ultimate in media fakery, reality TV, as one can, well.....they probably never will get it anyway. The joke is indeed on them.
Yet in the end, as we see Phoenix wander upstream (literally and now figuratively I suppose) in the most melancholy of endnotes, we begin to wonder if this was all a hoax or not. Andy Kauffmanesque hijinks aside (real or imaginary) one must question how much of himself did Phoenix put into this performance piece of his. Throughout the staged tomfoolery and mock-reality TV escapades, I am sure that some of the actor's downward spiral must have been more real than staged. On the precipice of being a tragic figure (albeit one who delights in making others uncomfortable) Phoenix surely has his demons, and many of them show in I'm Still Here. His late brother River was proof enough of what celebrity can do to an already fragile person. The question still lingers though; not is this a hoax (we know it is) but how much of said hoax was born from the side of Phoenix and his aforementioned demons? With the possibility of a real breakdown just out of camera shot (and more than likely, this entire ordeal has a bit of the truth and a bit of the false in it) one hopes Phoenix will now step away from this incident (for better or for worse - and I personally found the whole shebang a real kick-in-the-head type of entertainment) and, like his namesake (it had to be said!), rise from the ashes of disillusionment and begin his acting career anew. Because let's face it, a clever ruse or not, the guy sucks as a rapper. [09/19/10]