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Portrait of the Artist as a Hot Mess

By Brian Prisco | Film | September 14, 2010 |

By Brian Prisco | Film | September 14, 2010 |

Congratulations, we’ve all been had. Though there were brief gaps in the logic of Joaquin Phoenix’s much ballyhooed “retirement” from acting — right after he had been twice nominated for Academy Awards — to start a career as a hip-hop artist, for the most part, it simply seemed like Phoenix had a break from reality and chose to act that out spitting phat beats into a microphone. His brother-in-law Casey Affleck follows Phoenix around, recording his meltdown from behind the scenes and his attempts to break in to the music industry. And by god, it is the bread and circus he promised in Gladiator. It’s one part rockumentary, one part mockumentary, and one part shockumentary — and it adds up to a fascinating study in the 24/7 cult of celebrity that plagues our culture. And it’s all bullshit. I debated whether or not to be like my peers and pull back the curtain on the sideshow, but in reality, it’s always been exposed. Which sucks, because it was a pretty fucking badass social experiment. Like a backyard magician trying to perform card tricks with a surly half-in-the-bag suburban fuckknuckle bellowing “It’s fake! I can see him palming it! Phony!” from the front row, Phoenix’s gambit was constantly scorned and ridiculed as an obvious hoax. But like The Blair Witch Project and James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, if the end result is still entertaining, does it really fucking matter if it’s true? I submit with Joaquin Phoenix’s two year descent into faux lunacy that it does not.

It’s hard to feel sorry for the hairlipped Man in Black. Oh, boo hoo, you feel creatively stifled for getting paid to essentially be a glorified “puppet.” Guess you’ll have to cry yourself to sleep tonight on your stacks and stacks of cash. Yet, he did lose his older brother to a drug overdose at a tragically young age. And when you achieve even the smallest hint of notoriety or fame, you instantly become free game to anyone with a camera/cameraphone and good dental insurance who wants to shout any disgusting and horrible thing at you. The price you pay, I suppose. But there are plenty of people who make money as performers who manage not to suffer a complete mental breakdown.
I’m Still Here seems to be a commentary on the gossip ghoul mentality. How as a culture we hunger to see people at their worst, but especially if those people are celebrities. Christian Bale freaking out on set, Mel Gibson threatening his baby momma, Britney Spears shaving her head, Lindsay Lohan’s constant drinking binges — this is what we feed on when we slop at the trough. And yet, I guarantee if you put us in the public eye and caught us at our worst, we’d be a hundred thousand times more vile. We cluck at LiLo for getting shitfaced and stumbling out of clubs, but none of us have ever gotten so drunk we threw up Church’s Chicken at 3AM? If my twenties were actually videotaped, I’d definitely be in jail. Friends of mine have photos that will prevent me from ever running for public office. We’ve all had bad days, we’ve all had dark moments, we’ve all hated our jobs. (And if you’re shaking your head saying no, I love my life, then get hit by a prison bus and hurry into heaven now.) And so, I guess it’s an interesting take. It just seems like an awful convoluted way to go about making a point.

Affleck and Phoenix do an amazing job in building this character of the shattered actor. Phoenix is just a babbling frantic spastic mess for most of the film. He doesn’t once doubt that he can become a hip-hop superstar, that he’s got something to say that can only be expressed through angst ridden lyrics about fame. When he gets his chance to present his CD to Sean Combs, Phoenix is stunned when he’s told he’s got work to do and he’s not ready. When he finally makes it to his Letterman appearance to promote his last film, Dave mocks him and his appearance and the audience laughs at him. He’s honestly distraught. You can see in his eyes — he realizes that he’s the joke. It’s like watching someone get tortured in slow motion. and it’s awful.

Or it would be if it were real. The end credits essentially reveal what we’ve seen has been all “written and produced” by Affleck and Phoenix. Which is something of a relief, because otherwise Casey Affleck is the biggest sonofabitch bastard in the world. At first, I thought maybe he was like Hasselhoff’s daughter taping her dad drunkenly molesting a cheeseburger — “I’m doing this to show you what you’re like.” In actuality, he’s just playing along with his brother-in-law. There are a few tips of the hat to the reality of the project before we see that several of the characters are actually actors. Even in a documentary, you can’t videotape yourself doing illegal activities, particularly getting head from a hooker and snorting copious amounts of cocaine. He didn’t really need to quit acting to start a rap career — he could have just cut an album. Larry, his “caretaker and friend,” is an actor I know I’ve seen on film and TV before. Also, his longtime assistant Antony, is actually Antony Langdon, the guitarist for Spacehog. And the man who plays his father in the film is actually Tim Affleck.

But even though this is simply a mockumentary, sitting back and realizing that Phoenix essentially pulled this hoax for something going on three years is something else. He practically demolished his own career for this joke. It’s outstanding. And it’s still a funny film. Particularly the various actor cameos through the film — from Edward James Olmos spouting mountaintop raindrop wisdom, to Puffy playing a less cartoonish version of himself from Get Him To The Greek, to Ben Stiller trying to pitch Greenberg to an angry Joaquin. Which in retrospect makes Stiller’s Oscar appearance as Phoenix that much funnier, considering it was actually a fucking joke on us. The film relies a little much on SHOUTY = FUNNY and bodily functions, but it’s a damn amusing film. Whether this means Phoenix will rise again from the ashes — now that this all came out as a put-on — or if he’ll seriously just stop acting remains to be seen. I hope he faux-marries Britney Spears and they make a sex tape. Because what else is there going to be for us to read on the internet?