In 2008 Joaquin Phoenix, the Oscar-nominated star of Walk the Line and Gladiator, stunned Hollywood by announcing his retirement from acting to focus on a new career as a Hip Hop MC. Over the next few months, footage of his bizarre and disastrous performances would surface on the internet followed by a limo-crash of an appearance on the David Letterman show where Phoenix, dishevelled and incoherent, seemed on the verge of a catatonic breakdown.
However, reports then emerged that Casey Affleck, Phoenix’s brother-in-law, was making a fly-on-the-wall documentary about him leading many to speculate that the whole thing was part of some kind of elaborate Andy Kaufman-esque hoax. That film, I’m Still Here promises to finally answer the question on everybody’s lips: is this guy, like, for real or what?
Except, no, it doesn’t, not really. Instead you get two hours of hilarious, jaw-dropping, occasionally poignant, often unpleasant (there’s a whole lot more penises in it than I ideally would’ve liked) footage that leaves you no clearer about whether this is a genuine portrayal of a self-induced career suicide or the most audacious piece of satirical Performance Art ever staged.
I do, at least, now know how to correctly pronounce the name ‘Joaquin’ – so that’s something I guess. It’s Wa-keen by the way not, as I previously thought, Joe-a-quin. Which is a shame as I’d very much been looking forward to some terrible Bob Monkhouse–style jokes involving that pronunciation:
- Hey man, I saw your rap video on YouTube – you’ve gotta be Joaquin?
- Nope, I’m deadly serious! Wocka wocka wocka!!!
"I’m Still Here promises to finally answer the question on everybody’s lips: is this guy, like, for real or what? Except, no, it doesn’t."
For my money, this thing has to be a hoax. I simply can’t believe that anyone would voluntarily allow themselves to be portrayed in such a consistently bad light. Throughout the film we see Phoenix hoovering up vast quantities of cocaine, screaming the most vicious personal abuse at his staff, ordering prostitutes on the internet and then talking to the camera with an almost childlike enthusiasm about how he’s going to ‘smell their lovely buttholes’ when they arrive.
And then there’s his music, which is the most unremittingly awful stuff I’ve ever heard. Hip Hop is probably the most cringe worthy genre he could have gone for as well. White people, with a few notable exceptions, should not – nay must not – rap. It’s always going to be embarrassing. In doing so, Phoenix joins a dishonourable list that includes Debbie Harry, Kevin Federline, Jay from 5ive and former White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove. It’s not a cool list to be on.
At no point do his friends, who all seem to be on the payroll, ever try to stop him. They just look ineffectually on as he lurches from one PR disaster to the next until he eventually ends up hiding in a bush by the side of the freeway sobbing to himself “I’ve fucked my life”. Oh, and then one of them shits on him. It’s like the bleakest, most disturbing episode of Entourage imaginable (which is saying something – I once imagined an episode where Vince got cancer and Johnny Drama hanged himself…)
I think the most compelling thing about this film is that, up until now, Joaquin Phoenix has been an extraordinarily good actor – the best of his generation IMHO – and so the thought of him not doing it anymore feels like such a tragic waste. If Adam Sandler decided to give up being in shit sentimental comedies to become a milkman, I would basically be fine with that. But with Phoenix, it feels like the world is genuinely losing something special. His performance as Commodus in Gladiator, for example, was so amazing because of how incredibly real it felt. He took what could have just been a one-dimensional villain and filled him with all the emotions and insecurities that actual real-live human beings feel; jealousy, ambition, loneliness, daddy-issues, etc. Likewise in his last film, Two Lovers, he absolutely nails what it’s like to be trapped in a relationship you can’t escape from and we really believe that his character has a life beyond what we’re seeing on screen.
It’s therefore so interesting that an actor who excels at authenticity should now be the subject of a documentary that may or may not be entirely fake. It is fake, I’m sure it is, it must be. Yet Phoenix’s performance is so totally spot-on that towards the end you do find yourself thinking, hang on – maybe, he really is being genuine? Maybe this guy does actually have serious problems? And, in spite of everything, you find yourself feeling sorry for him. This is especially apparent in the David Letterman appearance, shown in its entirety, which no longer feels like a YouTube LOLathon but just a sad scene of a troubled man being laughed at and bullied. Letterman, in particular, comes across as a massive arsehole, filled with passive-aggressive rage that someone should DARE to come on his show and not want to tell a load of blandly jocular anecdotes.
Then again, maybe Letterman was in on it as well. And maybe I’m in on it too. Maybe the entire thing is an elaborate practical joke being played very specifically on you? Your friends are in on it, your co-workers are in on it, your neighbours, your mum and dad, the CIA, David Miliband, everyone. Hmm? Just something to think about…
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