You may remember when, in February of 2009, Joaquin Phoenix (Walk the Line, Two Lovers) stumbled awkwardly onto David Letterman's couch and proceeded to babble incoherently for an intensely awkward ten minute interview. (Video below) The respected actor, twice-nominated for an Academy Award, appeared disheveled, possibly on drugs, with a scraggly beard and dark sunglasses hiding his presumably glazed eyes. He mumbled uncomfortably, claimed he was leaving acting to pursue a hip-hop career, and grew antagonistic when Letterman suggested he might be kidding. The Late Show host tried to make the best of it, closing the cringe-worthy interview with "Joaquin, I'm sorry you couldn't be here tonight..." drawing forced, uncomfortable laughs from the audience.
But it's starting to look like the joke was on us. Magnolia Pictures has just acquired the rights to I'm Still Here: The Lost Year of Joaquin Phoenix, a mockumentary documentary from Phoenix's brother-in-law, Casey Affleck, who is making his directorial debut. The movie is ostensibly a portrait of the actor at a crossroads in his career, as he leaves acting to reinvent himself as an absurdly bearded hip-hop artist.
Those who speculated after Phoenix's appearance on Letterman that the actor must have been "up to something" can now presumably give themselves a pat on the back: it's increasingly looking as though the actor's bizarre behavior was all part of a Borat-esque, performance-art type stunt. Still, it's not entirely clear to what extent Phoenix's 'transition' was real - perhaps the actor really did have some kind of meltdown - and Casey Affleck and Magnolia Pictures are trying to keep it a mystery.
However, a source who recently worked with Phoenix told Entertainment Weekly that the actor had privately admitted "It’s a put-on. I’m going to pretend to have a meltdown and change careers, and Casey is going to film it." Another source confirmed that "It’s an art project for him. He’s going full out. He probably has told his reps that he’s quit acting. Joaquin is very smart. This is very conscious. He has a huge degree of control."
But Magnolia president Eamonn Bowles is defending the film. "It is going to get a lot of attention, but it is not some cheap stunt where they said, ‘Let’s do some wild stuff and film it.’ It is extreme behavior but really good filmmaking as well. Frankly, some of the behavior is very extreme. But it is in the context of the insanity of being in Joaquin’s life for that period of time. It is a unique piece of work that is going to surprise people in different ways."
The studio's press release was equally enigmatic: "Magnolia Pictures announced today that it has acquired world rights to Oscar-nominee Casey Affleck’s directorial debut, I’M STILL HERE, a striking portrayal of a tumultuous year in the life of internationally acclaimed actor Joaquin Phoenix. With remarkable access, I’M STILL HERE follows the Oscar-nominee as he announces his retirement from a successful film career in the fall of 2008 and sets off to reinvent himself as a hip hop musician. Sometimes funny, sometimes shocking, and always riveting, the film is a portrait of an artist at a crossroads. Defying expectations, it deftly explores notions of courage and creative reinvention, as well as the ramifications of a life spent in the public eye."
But a number of other studios were far less receptive. Deadline reports that "Some [distributers] walked away turned off or confused. They weren't sure if this was an Andy Kaufman-like hoax, or a great actor's meltdown." However, Magnolia Pictures is giving the documentary a platform release on September 10th, with plans to go wide on the 17th, despite scenes involving Phoenix snorting coke off a prostitute's breast, full-frontal male nudity, and someone defecating on the actor while he sleeps.
This could potentially be the strangest career-reboot and/or performance-art stunt in cinema history. Until we see the film, there's no way to know whether Affleck's documentary (and Phoenix's 'performance') will amount to some kind of brilliant commentary on celebrity culture or a mind-bogglingly weird flop. Then again, some critics will likely call this 'art,' so it can always be claimed that the public just 'didn't get it.' Hoax or no, I, for one, am excited to find out what Affleck and Phoenix's have up their sleeves.