Phoenix falling

Joaquin disintegrates before your very eyes — or does he?

In physics, there's a phenomenon called "the observer effect," where the mere act of observing an object can alter its natural state; this is tied to the more complex uncertainty principle. But, in showbiz, one thing is very certain: You're only famous as long as someone is looking at you. You may remember roughly two years ago, when infamously intense method actor Joaquin Phoenix had a prolonged tabloid meltdown, shambling around like a drug-addled caveman through a series of embarrassing public appearances, as he became increasingly unhinged. This all culminated in a near-legendary interview with David Letterman, where a disheveled Phoenix chewed gum, and mumbled incoherently about quitting acting to become a hip-hop icon.

This is a long way to go for a joke, especially an unfunny one. 

I'm Still Here is the allegedly "real" account of Phoenix's career suicide, and it's dubious as both documentary and entertainment, but serves as an excellent primer on the perils of believing your own hype. Looking like a homeless Zach Galifianakis, with a huge mountain man beard growth, Joaquin stalks the Hollywood Hills, sporting a chaotic, expansive, dirty mangle of hair that'd make Phil Spector jealous. In between coke binges, he starts spewing rambling, anti-showbiz diatribes to anyone within earshot, as he goes through the motions of promoting the film Two Lovers, which he swears will be his final film work, except for the camera crew following his every misstep. That crew is led by brother-in-law Casey Affleck (married to sister Summer Phoenix), the rest of Joaquin's dwindling rank of friends being mostly paid flunkies. 

Despite commercial and critical success, including a Golden Globe award and a best actor Oscar nomination for playing Johnny Cash in Walk the Line, Phoenix rails against the crushing restraints of movie acting, is tired of being a glorified mannequin, and eager for "real" artistic expression, which in this case means some moronic, disjointed rap lyrics littered with F-bombs. Most of the music biz knows a disaster when they see one, but the ever fame-conscious Sean Coombs agrees to meet him. What little "plot" there is involves the effort to track down Puff, or Diddy, or whatever the hell he's calling himself these days. During one of these interludes, Phoenix dismisses President Obama's inauguration as "a movie premiere with less pussy."

These encounters are simply buffers between copious hardcore shots of vomiting, male nudity, pot smoking, hooker sessions and a very charming sequence where a disgruntled employee defecates on Phoenix while he sleeps. 

All of it is a sad spectacle, played for both comedy and pathos, and largely failing to achieve either. Much has been made over whether this film is reality or an elaborate hoax. Who cares? Either way it's fairly reprehensible. While Joaquin shamefully hams it up at being a tortured soul, zero mention is made of the very real tragedies that befell truly gifted stars Heath Ledger and, of course, Joaquin's own brother, River Phoenix. It's also hard to imagine Casey just standing by while his pal disintegrates on film, and if that's not a giveaway, the guy playing Joaquin's "father" is listed in the credits as "Tim Affleck." At one point, improv specialist Ben Stiller pops in, pitching the script of Greenberg, a fine film which was shot, edited and released to DVD in the time it took Affleck to assemble this train wreck. The picture lingered in oblivion for a year-and-a-half, far too long for the media vultures who feasted on his twitching carcass to care enough to return and pick the bones clean. The real question is: Will anyone stick around for the big reveal, as the hoax exposed is worse than the one claimed. 

Phoenix will likely find himself in the same career jail that Mickey Rourke once inhabited, but perhaps like his mythic namesake, he can stage a resurrection. He'd better make it quick — before the embers turn to ash.

Showing at the Landmark Main Art Theatre, 118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111.

Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].

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