Joaquin Phoenix has always seemed just a little weird. That’s probably why most of us bought into his apparent meltdown over the last year. We’ve watched as he fell apart during a February interview with David Letterman, quit acting, grew a massive and unkempt beard and tried vainly to launch a bizarre rap career. All of this was being filmed by Phoenix’s friend and brother-in-law Casey Affleck for a documentary of the actor’s transition from Oscar nominee to crazy man. The resulting movie, I’m Still Here, went into limited release on September 10th and it was met with a mix of puzzlement and annoyance by critics and audiences alike.
Now I’m Still Here‘s director, Cassey Affleck, has admitted in an interview with the New York Times that virtually everything in the film is fake, even the old home movies of Phoenix as a child. The entire exercise was concocted by Phoenix and Affleck, with only a few people (such as Phoenix’s agent) being in on the scheme. The now infamous David Letterman interview was effectively the launching point of the project, and Letterman himself was not privy to what was really going on. Phoenix is already planning another interview with Letterman, no longer in crazy mode, to try to clear up any lingering confusion.
It’s rather likely that Affleck is admitting the falsehood of the film now due to the lukewarm critical response. Much of the frustration that viewers and critics had over the film was that they never knew if all of this was meant to be real or not. Many had suspected it was all staged months before the film was released but that was never confirmed until the New York Times interview. Had the response been more positive it seems like that Affleck would have been happy to string us all along for a little bit longer. However with most critics not responding positively it looks like Affleck has gone into damage control to try to calm everybody down. Roger Ebert’s review even said he would be very upset if this was fake, even though he suspected it might be.
Phoenix himself probably has the toughest road from here. He may be able to shrug his shoulders and claim he didn’t really go crazy, but one suspects most people will still question his sanity based on this stunt alone. His willingness to mess with everybody as thoroughly has he did will probably give many movie studios pause before booking him for acting work again. The entire stunt brings to mind the elaborate pranks of Andy Kaufman. Kaufman was a gifted actor but also notoriously difficult to work with, and that’s a stigma that Phoenix might now have to work to fight off.
The lingering question is still why this was done. Affleck’s New York Times interview certainly makes it clear that none of it was real but it gives little insight into the reasoning behind doing it in the first place. Given the completely serious tone of I’m Still Here it seems clear that it wasn’t done for humor like the pranks of Kaufman or the films of Sascha Baron Cohen (Borat and Bruno.) Perhaps Phoenix just saw it as his biggest possible acting challenge and the project was something like a personal Mount Everest. With any luck the upcoming Letterman interview will clear things up a bit more. Because even though we all know the how and what we have yet to understand the why.