Joaquin Phoenix Takes The Rap

07/09/2010 | By

WARNING: Major spoiler alert. Do not read if you are waiting for the film

He wasn’t here. Two-time Oscar nominee, hip-hop hopeful and international man of mystery Joaquin Phoenix, the subject of Casey Affleck’s "documentary" I’m Still Here, was a no-show at the Venice Film Festival’s public showing this afternoon. That’s a pity, since Phoenix, the brooding, respected, totally serioso actor in Walk the Line and Gladiator, has been a gossip-writer’s dream subject for two years now — from Oct. 2008, when he announced he was renouncing movies to be a rap artist, through his infamous gig Feb. 11, 2009, on The Late Show With David Letterman, when the star showed up in his fat bearded-guy look and glazed, incoherent persona, cuing Letterman to ask, "What can you tell us about your days with the Unabomber?" and to cap the interview with "Joaquin. I’m sorry you couldn’t be here tonight."

Still AWOL at the world premiere of his movie — which plays the Toronto Film Festival Friday, the same day it opens in Los Angeles, before a limited run in other cities — Phoenix left plenty of questions unanswered. Like: Is this movie for real? Many industry sages believe the whole thing is an elaborate hoax: pulling a Garbo at age 33, declaring he was going to excel in a new field he was unprepared for, sitting for a feature-length portrait, warts and all (in fact, nothing but warts), by Affleck, his sister Summer’s husband. Tired of having to interpret other people’s scripts when he possesses the soul of a creative artist, Phoenix says plaintively, "I don’t wanna play the character of Joaquin any more." Yet he is fully aware of the paradox that an ex-actor is the subject of a movie: "My life is becoming a film about me not wanting to make a film." (See the top 10 disastrous Letterman interviews.)

"I can tell you, there’s no hoax," an ostensibly exasperated Affleck said at today’s press conference. "It never entered my mind until other people commented on the movie." Maybe I’m Still Here is a documentary, maybe a mockumentary. In our media-mad culture, is any moment "real" when someone lets cameras follow him in his most private moments? Phoenix has been acting since he was a kid, like his siblings, and like Affleck and his older brother Ben. When is an actor not "on"? Is Joaquin so blotto that he does that he’s not aware he’s being photographed? And is there even the slimmest difference between ruthless truth-telling and dumb or preening exhibitionism — ingesting snow-mountains of cocaine, shouting down his underlings, having sex with a call girl, all while the camera rolls?

In the great Joaquin debate — is he crazy like a loon, or like a fox? — the smart Hollywood money is on fox. Phoenix and Affleck, the argument goes, are staging a complex hoax, a deadpan impression of the mad artist, taking Sacha Baron Cohen’s Ali G, Borat and Bruno to the next stage. Well, if so, this is the most minimalist put-on of all time, or a new Zen form of performance art, seeing as Phoenix has not worked publicly, as either an actor or a rapper, since the I’m Still Here shoot was completed in March 2009. Nor does the film offer a coda of Joaquin’s recent emotional whereabouts. Not even Baron Cohen would dare to create a character he keeps in hiding for a year and a half. (See TIME’s review of Walk the Line.)

True or false? It almost doesn’t matter, since like Somewhere, the Sofia Coppola inside-Hollywood drama that premiered here Friday, I’m Not Here is a sad-amusing portrait of an actor between gigs. It certainly contains many vignettes worthy of a tell-all showbiz bio-pic. Watch Joaquin play the imperious movie star, when he shouts, to someone less powerful than he, "I got a million dollar bank account and you’re makin’ fun of me?" Or, when his rapper gig at Miami’s LIV disco ends in disaster and Joaquin stands vomiting over a toilet, while his manager thoughtfully holds Joaquin’s tie away from the spew. Even if he’s not in pictures any more, he still needs to be pampered like a star.

The "truth" is that, back in 2008 when Phoenix said he was turning to hip hop, his acting career was not exactly blooming. After his acclaimed turn as Johnny Cash in Walk the Line he starred in two minor films directed by James Gray and in the 2007 drama Reservation Road (where his daughter was played by Elle Fanning, who also plays the actor’s daughter in Somewhere). In I’m Still Here, he can be heard railing that Reservation Road went nowhere, while the similar Revolutionary Road earned raves and a glut Oscar nominations. He might have renounced acting, but he still had some actor envy.

He didn’t realize that writing and performing hip hop required crafts and showmanship beyond his skills. A neophyte in the genre, he has a musical vision, as he tells actual rapper Mos Def, of "a hip-hop ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ kind of thing." Securing an audience with Sean Combs, he agonizes over the proper mode of address for the rap mogul (Sean? Puff? Diddy? P? Mr. C.?). All business, when Phoenix asks him what he’d like to hear, Combs snaps back, "Play me a hit." He tells Joaquin that if — big if — he agrees to a session a producer’s fee will be involved. Phoenix: "How much you need?" Combs: "How much you got?" (See the top 10 celebrity makeovers.)

The audition is painful. Phoenix plays one number ("Compli-f—in-cation, compli-mother-f—-in-cation") that shows a little promise, and another called "I’m Still Real" (possibly a more accurate title for the movie); but after three cuts Combs tells him, "You’re not ready to record with me. You’re not at that point yet." Joaquin is crushed. And now, in a day or two, he has go on Letterman. Climbing into bushes in Central Park after the show, he bursts into tears and cries, "I’m just gonna be a goddam joke forever."

That might have been the ultimate humiliation, but Joaquin’s longtime assistant Antony Langdon has one more in store. Constantly debased by Joaquin, who tells him, "I will s—t on your face," Antony creeps into Phoenix’s bedroom one night, stands over his sleeping boss and seems to defecate onto him. And Affleck is there to film it.

Somewhere during this long, fascinating display of artistic ego (or humorous hubris), considers his failure in rapdom and asks himself, "Is it that the dream is unattainable or that it’s the wrong dream?" But from first to last, he appears to have an unnervingly strong sense of self. "Hate me, do whatever you like," he says, but "don’t misunderstand me." It’s easy to hate Joaquin Phoenix, harder to like him. But the personality on show in I’m Still Here: that passeth all understanding.