Joaquin Phoenix announces his retirement from a successful film career and sets off to reinvent himself as a hip hop musician.
“Joaquin, I’m sorry you couldn’t be here tonight”. As David Letterman spoke those words, the world contemplated whether Phoenix had tragically fallen from grace or whether, more optimistically, he had been watching the highlights of Andy Kaufman’s back catalogue.
There certainly is something Kaufman-esque about Joaquin Phoenix and the direction of his career. Kaufman had a career laden with hoaxes. On one television special, he added live static into the edit to make the audience think their television sets were faulty just for his own amusement. Let’s make one thing clear, though, Andy Kaufman was a comedian. From his Latka stand-up and the Fridays sketch that he refused to take part in live on air, to the turn into professional wrestling where he would only agree to fight women, everything was done to make either himself laugh or the audience laugh.
Joaquin Phoenix, up until now at least, is not a comedian. The closest thing his makeover resembles is Tony Clifton, a brash, vulgar, narcissistic comedic creation of Kaufmans. Phoenix is an Oscar-nominated actor who gave the performance of his life as Johnny Cash in Walk the Line. Then, in 2008, he inexplicably retired from acting to focus on rap career and be constantly filmed by his friend and brother in-law, Casey Affleck. I’m Still Here is the culmination of this filming.
Invariably, then, going into this film, the biggest question remains the same. Is this an elaborate practical joke for his own humour, or the actual direction Phoenix would like his career, and life, to take? If it is the former, it is hard to see what a successful punch-line would look like.
Some scenes appear too well-timed, too comedic and too-technically adept to not be part of a script. Although, the sound is sometimes genuinely bad and the subtitles are misspelt (‘definite’ is spelt ‘defenite’ – which, for a film that should have a fairly big reach, is shambolic at best), the multiple camera angles and the conveniently mic’d-up phonecalls would suggest that this is no more ‘real’ than an episode of The Osbournes. That’s not to say the film isn’t engaging or interesting because, in a voyeuristic way, it certainly is.
In addition to sometimes channelling Tony Clifton, Phoenix is portrayed as a man concerned about his public perception. In one scene, immediately following the aforementioned Letterman appearance in which he mumbles, scratches his beard and sticks his chewing gum on Letterman’s desk (an appearance that didn’t, incidentally, culminate in being punched to the ground by Jerry Lawler – a’la Kaufman – but went viral nevertheless), Phoenix is shown in shock, distraught that he may have ruined his career with his performance and unhappy that people are looking at his new aspirations with humour and derision. If he was really that concerned, why did the Letterman appearance appear at all in the film, let alone a version of it that was edited to make him look even more of a shambles (if that is possible)? It would be even more astonishing, then, that he would allow the production of a film in which he snorts (what appears to be) cocaine from a prostitute’s breasts, vomits profusely after seemingly attacking an audience member and is defecated on whilst asleep.
If this is an accurate depiction of a truly troubled Joaquin Phoenix, then you would think his sister (who is married to the director) would not allow the breakdown of his life to be used as cinema fodder in this way. Furthermore, when Phoenix is questioned at a film junket about the potential prank, he angrily derides the journalist for even speculating about the choices he is making in his life. However, just by showing this scene, the film asks the audience to speculate, it asks you to question it, it literally serves as nothing more than the visual extension of that ongoing question.
Simply put, if he was really serious about his rap career, you would think or, at the very least, hope that he would not have made a film belittling it.
Interestingly, Phoenix is scheduled to appear on Letterman again to promote the film next week so it will be interesting to see who exactly turns up.
Update: This review was written for the theatrical release of I’m Still Here. Days later he admitted the film was a mockumentary.