I'm Still Here: Joaquin Phoenix Takes the Rap

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Magnolia Pictures

Joaquin Phoenix in I'm Still Here

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 on Monday. 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 October 2008, when he announced he was renouncing movies to be a rap artist, to his infamous Feb. 11, 2009, gig on 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 then cap the interview with, "Joaquin, I'm sorry you couldn't be here tonight."

Still AWOL at the world premiere of his movie — which will play the Toronto Film Festival on Friday, the same day that 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 anymore." 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."

"I can tell you, there's no hoax," an ostensibly exasperated Affleck said at Monday'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 considered 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 Phoenix so blotto 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 Brüno 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.

True or false? It almost doesn't matter since, like Somewhere, the Sofia Coppola inside-Hollywood drama that premiered here on Friday, I'm Still Here is a sad-amusing portrait of an actor between gigs. It certainly contains many vignettes worthy of a tell-all showbiz biopic. 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 anymore, 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 (in which his daughter was played by Elle Fanning, who also plays a lead 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 of Oscar nominations. He might have renounced acting, but he still had actor envy.

He didn't realize that writing and performing hip-hop required craft 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 "Diddy" 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 Phoenix 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?"

The audition is painful. Phoenix plays one number ("Complif______cation, Complimotherf______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." Phoenix is crushed. And in a day or two, he has to go on Letterman. Climbing into bushes in Central Park after the show, he bursts into tears and cries, "I'm just gonna be a goddamn joke forever."

That might have been the ultimate humiliation, but Phoenix's longtime assistant Antony Langdon has one more in store. Constantly debased by Phoenix, who tells him, "I will s___ on your face," Langdon 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), Phoenix 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 and harder to like him. But the personality on show in I'm Still Here: that passeth all understanding.