If you're unfamiliar with the saga that has been Joaquin Phoenix's career for the past two years, let me refresh your memory. In October 2008, he abruptly announced that he was retiring from acting without giving much explanation. A few months later, he revealed that his brother-in-law, Casey Affleck, was directing a documentary chronicling his career change from actor to rapper. The bizarre news left many of us scratching our heads, and the fruit of Affleck and Phoenix's "collaboration" is equally confounding. I'm Still Here: The Lost Year of Joaquin Phoenix takes us through Phoenix's changes, both physical and emotional. He starts off as the clean-cut, handsome actor whose career is just taking off thanks to Oscar-nominated roles in Gladiator and Walk the Line. What we're left with is the haggard, pot-bellied, petulant shell of a man who has lost his way entirely. As I watched Phoenix call prostitutes, ask Diddy for career advice, and pummel a heckler during one of his hip-hop shows, I had to wonder: if this film really isn't a hoax, then why was Casey Affleck filming these hijinks instead of getting help for his friend and family member?
For more of my thoughts on the film, just read on.
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To be fair, the film isn't as controversial or offensive as what I had braced myself for. With a little research you'll learn that there is some nudity and definitely some behavior that's reminiscent of Jackass, but the film is more frustrating than it is disturbing. I did enjoy getting a little more information about why Phoenix felt the need to give up acting (he claims he was tired of being a "puppet" and felt like he was playing a role even off camera), but his decision to try music instead still makes little sense. Phoenix takes almost no means to learn about the industry, and then promptly whines and blames everyone around him when his "songs" are met with a negative reaction.
At the beginning of the film, Phoenix says that what you see in the documentary is what "really represents" him, before demanding "don't misunderstand me." Unfortunately, the 100 minutes that follow don't bring much clarity to who Phoenix really is. Is he an egotistic drug addict or simply a lost soul? After Phoenix watches his own disastrous interview with David Letterman, he cries and laments that his life is a joke. As he sits with his bushy beard in his hands, I thought about the career he was leaving behind. That's really the only twist of the film: if I can watch Phoenix vomit for two straight minutes and still hope to see him return to acting, then maybe the joke's on me. But please, Joaquin, even though you can rhyme your name with "spleen," don't freestyle ever again.