I’ve been struggling with, first of all, wrapping my head around this bizarre display of celebrity, narcissism and excess, second of all, my approach to how to write about this film. The directorial debut of actor Casey Affleck is a documentary chronicling his brother-in-law’s, Joaquin Phoenix, retirement from acting and entering a new career as a hip hop recording artist. Famously, Joaquin Phoenix was a two time Oscar nominated actor (for Gladiator and Walk The Line) and seemingly, like Michael Jordan and John Elway, left the industry at the top of his game. This film asks a lot from its audience and its subjects. Why would Joaquin Phoenix walk away from the lime light? Why would his brother-in-law and friend document and release a feature film of Joaquin Phoenix’s unfavorable exploits? How much of this film, if any, is a hoax?
What is delivered on the screen is a behind-closed-doors look at celebrity and all its advantages and trappings. From private jets and cars to smoking dubious amounts of marijuana, from parties in Miami to snoring cocaine off a New York call girl’s breast; Affleck’s camera is truly unblinking. The feeling of claustrophobia is apparent in this film, and an audience feels as if they themselves are trapped in a bubble looking in from the inside. The film begins with a Blair Witch type of footage following a hooded Joaquin Phoenix as he spouts his feelings of being on display for an audience without a hint of irony being filmed as he states ‘I feel like a puppet’. Without the integrity of feeling like a true artist, Joaquin Phoenix longs to create rather than mimic. Could this be a clue or the key to the entire film?
Creating anything artful and wanting to be understood is a taxing process to any artist. No matter how brilliant or how miserable the outcome is, the process can lead anyone to madness. Seeing this process from a well renowned actor is admirable but the vices involved in its creation is haunting and is a chilling look into what it means to be human. It’s saddening to see such a talented actor sink so deep into himself. At times, this film feels like a disheartening episode of Entourage. A small group of yes men surrounding their famous friend. Encouraging bad behavior and horrible work rather than criticizing and being constructive is a deadly mix for the weak willed. How will Joaquin Phoenix’s image be perceived in the future? But what is really going on here? Could the images shown by Casey Affleck just be an everyday thing for what really happens in Hollywood?
It’s hard to go into this film without any awareness of the events being documented in it. This retirement announcement, beard growth and new career ambitions from Joaquin Phoenix have been greatly publicised from practically every and all entertainment outlets and tabloids for the past two years. But seeing this breakdown or renaissance is an eerie one to witness. Joaquin Phoenix’s infamous appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman is more than bizarre when put in actual context to the events that come before and proceed it. But the actual realization of how low his life has sunk, personally and professionally, hit Joaquin Phoenix in a depressing display as he mutters to himself ‘My life is fucked, my life is fucked..’ in Central Park after the appearance. The thought that this career change might be a mistake, looms over Joaquin Phoenix’s head as he literally sinks lower and lower on not so solid ground. Moreover, this is a very humanizing look at someone who was once on a untouchable pedestal.
Whether the events of this film are actual or staged, the reactions and comprehension is real. Is this a hoax? Is this real? Some would say this documentary style would all originate with Orson Welles’ F For Fake, along with other documentaries this year such as Catfish (read Travis’ review or read my review) and Exit Through The Gift Shop that challenge an audience to question reality. I don’t think it matters, what Casey Affleck and Joaquin Phoenix do in this film is interesting, saddening and haunting. The terms of this film are unblinking and at times amusing but ultimately perplexing and odd. After the screening, I was thinking what is this going to do to Joaquin Phoenix’s image and career? Will he ever rise to the strata of his accolades of his performances in Gladiator or Walk The Line ever again? Or was all of this past performances crescendos to the film, I’m Still Here? Ultimately it doesn’t matter, let what’s on the screen speak for itself. It does say a lot about celebrity, creation and ego regardless. At there is a point in the film, Joaquin Phoenix has become a joke in Hollywood and has become an easy target for critics and bloggers. Maybe the joke’s on us? At the end of the day, I hope we never know the truth behind this film. What is on the screen is far more interesting.