Joaquin Phoenix: Drug-Addled Narcissist or The New Andy Kaufman?

If you haven’t been paying attention to the enigma that is Joaquin Phoenix – and really, who has lately? – sitting down to watch I’m Still Here: The Lost Year of Joaquin Phoenix is a startling look at what’s become of the movie star who tossed aside his successful career in order to reinvent himself as hip-hop artist. The public perception of this ludicrous move is taken mostly from his notorious appearance on ‘The Late Show with David Letterman,’ which showed him as a disheveled, hairy wreck unwilling or unable to even hold a light conversation, but this new film purports to take us into the inner workings of why and how this apparent mental breakdown came to pass.

Reveling in drugs, prostitutes and his inflated view of the importance of his own artistic expression, the version of “JP” we see in this film, directed by his brother-in-law Casey Affleck, is a raging ego out of control. He abuses his assistants while claiming he’s trying to help them. He calls everything he’s done as an actor “fraudulent” in spite of his two Academy Award nominations. He has paranoid rants about how everyone around him is out to sabotage him if things don’t go his way. He insults Ben Stiller for trying to offer him a part in Greenberg and he chases down Sean Combs to the point of harassment to try to get him to produce his album.

It seems crazy to believe that such a classy actor could devolve into this unkempt, narcissistic buffoon, but if reality television and Mel Gibson have taught us anything, it’s that anyone ensconced in celebrity culture can go from respectability to ruthless public mockery once their true idiot selves are laid bare for all to see.

It’s a stunning, merciless, brutally honest depiction of how fame can destroy even brilliant minds… until you really start to think about it.

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Would they really show actual footage of Phoenix snorting coke and hiring hookers and risk a criminal investigation? Could he really be dumb enough to be a drug abuser in the first place considering how his brother River Phoenix died? How could a guy like Affleck watch his brother-in-law implode into a flaming ball of pathetic despair and do nothing but film the descent?

Then there’s that Letterman appearance. In the film, it’s the perfect climactic event providing JP with his only fleeting moment of self-awareness in its crushing aftermath, when he weeps openly at the realization how awful his music is and how boneheaded the move to throw away his career was. It’s too perfect. Wasn’t there someone else who made astute use of Letterman’s show to perpetrate elaborate hoaxes like this while refusing to let the general public in on the joke?

Oh yeah, his name was Andy Kaufman, and he was so committed to his facades that Jim Carrey had to make a movie about him in order to explain to people how brilliantly they’d been had.

Many people have been crying hoax since this whole JP flameout started, and judging by some of the recent comments about I’m Still Here, it would seem to be the case that it’s all an elaborate prank on the world at large. Affleck has been completely evasive and vague when insisting it’s not a joke, but he recently admitted that Combs’ scene where he crushes JP’s rap dream is all “a little bit of an act” and he even likened the film to the classic prank show ‘Candid Camera.’

I spoke to Edward James Olmos this morning about the upcoming Hispanic Heritage Month event on Comcast On Demand, which will feature his films Selena and Stand and Deliver. He appears in I’m Still Here in a cameo, offering Phoenix sage advice about fame vs. art (advice which JP then amusingly garbles later in the movie), and I asked him for his take on the film. He laughed and said “The question is ‘does somebody have to tell you?’ What part of that is dramatic license and what part of that is factual? That’s the issue, isn’t it? Is it a film or is it a documentary? I think it’s a film, myself.”

Who would know better if the film was scripted than a guy who had to deliver a monologue in it?

So we can likely safely say this whole Joaquin Phoenix retirement saga was a grand illusion, which leaves I’m Still Here as a document detailing just how amazingly committed these guys were to pulling it off. Who knows? Maybe this insane level of dedication to his craft could finally net him that Oscar that’s been eluding him, too.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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