"Is this human shit? Did someone human shit on me?"
Joaquin Phoenix is an undeniably talented actor. Roundabout November 2008, rumors began swirling that he was retiring from acting to pursue a career in hip hop. The stories that followed on the internet and on tv were often hysterically funny: He fell off the stage during his rap debut, he suffered a meltdown on David Letterman's show, he got into a fist fight with a fan at another show. This was genuinely funny stuff, the kind of thing that makes for great performance art. The issue, however, is that while he was doing this, his brother-in-law Casey Affleck was filming it all for posterityand the joke is actually on anyone who thought it was a joke. I know that both Phoenix and Affleck have come out and said the whole thing was a hoax, but watching this film makes you feel like it was anything but. I think they're trying to make the best of a bad situation.
The film is the kind of self-indulgent, navel gazing nonsense that Hollywood stars are derided for in the media. I have a really difficult time liking Phoenix because, well, he's a dick. The encounters he has with various friends and celebrities reek of sadly staged attempts at garnering empathy for Phoenix through the derision of the people around him, and it just makes the whole affair that much more ridiculous as a result. For example, a visit from Ben Stiller to persuade Phoenix to take a part in the film Greenberg ends in disaster. Later in the film we see Stiller mocking Phoenix at The Academy Awards, as Phoenix watches at home with a mixture of hurt and sadness. Then in the end credits, Ben Stiller gets a big, stand-alone special thanks credit. So what exactly are we supposed to glean from all this?
The film is full of this kind of nonsense, where Phoenix bitches and moans about the lack of honesty and truth in entertainment, but is so full of shit that it's hard to know exactly who the joke is on. For some background, Phoenix takes part in a staged reading of a play in honor of Paul Newman's passing. He takes this opportunity to announce his retirement from acting and that he'll be springboarding into a hip hop career. His attempts to get a notable producer for his record fail, until he is able to secure a meeting with P. Diddy. Well, his pubicist is able to secure a meeting, but Phoenix is more interested in getting high, fucking prostitutes and acting like an imbecile to actually go and meet with Diddy.
Okay, so this is where I'll get up on a soapbox for a moment. Phoenix's older brother, River, very famously overdosed on drugs some twenty years ago, so why on earth am I watching his younger brother fucking around with drugs? And who knows if the whole thing is staged, it could be for all I know, but it's sort of a hollow joke when it involves drugs and this particular family. Okay, rant over.
So anyway, he finally ends up meeting with Diddy and getting him to sort of agree to produce the album if his stuff is good. So is it good? Look, I'm no hip hop expert or aficianado, but it sounded like garbage to me. It was rank amateurishness at best and pretentious bullshit at worst. Diddy later calls him out on this after listening to his demo, asking him if he wants to get into hip hop because he thinks it's funny to walk around and act like a black dude.
Phoenix takes virtually every opportunity he can to deride his friend and assistant Antony. In one particularly awful outburst after his disastrous appearance on Letterman, he tells Antony that he doesn't want him around anymore, and in the middle of the night, Antony takes a shit on him. It's a fitting gesture from a friend who's devoted any sort of time to being around this lunatic.
As the film draws to a close, it becomes obvious to Phoenix and everyone around him that this whole endeavor has been a failure. He travels to Panama to see his father (played by Affleck's father for some inexplicable reason. Why list that in the credits at all?) Phoenix wades out into some water by a waterfall he was filmed at as a kid (don't worry, they replay the footage from the beginning of the movie, just in case you weren't paying attention, and at this point, I wouldn't blame you if you weren't). The last five and a half minutes of the film are just a shot of Phoenix, from behind, walking in the water as this sad piano music plays.
What the fuck? As I said before, who exactly is the joke on here? Is there even a joke? At least in Exit Through the Gift Shop, that was a legitimate question that the film has nothing but fun with. Here, the whole thing is devoid of fun that I can't even begin to fathom what anyone involved was thinking. If there's a statement to be made about the falseness of fame, it's certainly lost in the whirlpool of self-indulgence and drug use on display here. This isn't a film so much as it is an endurance test. It was so devoid of fun, that by the time we see his appearance on Letterman, I was so happy to see someone calling this bonehead out on his bullshit.
There's no reason I can think of to recommend that anyone see this film. Let it be a private, unfunny inside joke between Affleck and Phoenix and let it die with them. I used to respect Phoenix. From here on out, I'll be approaching everything he does with an air of caution, lest I end up being another sap that fell for his joke that's on no one in particular.