SO, WAS IT a hoax? The beard, the fat, the hiphop, the P. Diddy? Was it all fake? Yes. And no. Mostly yes. I think.
When Joaquin Phoenix abruptly announced his retirement from film in order to pursue a new career in hiphop, the media and public at large instantly smelled a rat—one that appeared to be verified when it was revealed that Phoenix's brother-in-law, Casey Affleck, was making a film called I'm Still Here, about the supposed "artistic transition." Photos of Phoenix in Venice, where the film recently premiered, show him clean-shaven and at least on the road back to looking like a leading man.
So, let's say it's all completely fake. What a commitment to the Method! Phoenix's IMDb docket has remained empty since 2008's Two Lovers; since then, he's dedicated himself to immersion in the Phoenix we've seen making occasional embarrassing public performances over the past couple years, including an infamously spaced-out turn on Letterman, and now we see him here: overweight, drinking beer, snorting coke, ranting at his "friends"/assistants, and mumbling through the cluttered "who am I?" mess of a personality that's the plausible result of a lifetime of performing. Maybe he thought the conceit was worth sabotaging his career and reputation, if only for a time.
Or maybe he just has the kind of relationship with Affleck that makes it cool for the guy who married his little sister to film him doing coke off of a call girl's tits, or getting shat on (on the face!) by a fed-up assistant, then releasing it in theaters around the world. Maybe it's real. Maybe that's how people who've been famous their whole lives do therapy. What foresight! More likely, it's a combination. Is that any more or less fucked up? Which way would you care more or less about?
Phoenix's post-Walk the Line career wasn't necessarily skyrocketing when he took a sharp left into Crazy Town, but it was far from looking grim. If fame hadn't had him already living intimately with anxiety and self-absorption, one imagines it would be easy for him to tap into those emotions, and even go deep down that road for an extended time, for the sake of playing the ultimate meta-upon-meta role that would ultimately launch him into the annals of film's history.
What's at turns frustrating about I'm Still Here—and really, the only thing worth talking about—is the film's continued refusal to clarify real and manufactured. The whole affair succeeds insofar as this line can be debated, but it will ultimately need to be accounted for to be deemed anything besides one part Borat, one part Blair Witch, and a whole lot of making a mess all over.