Is Joaquin Still Here?


In 2008, Joaquin Phoenix announced a permanent resignation from acting, in order to focus on his “music career.” We all remember the Letterman interview in early 2009; a bearded, gum-chewing Phoenix was barely responsive to Letterman’s questions, and seemed hurt when the audience laughed at his hip hop aspirations.

From the outset he denied rumors that it was an elaborate hoax. “This is not a joke. Might I be ridiculous? Might my career in music be laughable? Yeah, that’s possible, but that’s certainly not my intention.” However, following this month’s release of I’m Still Here – a ‘documentary’ depicting Joaquin’s attempt to transition from acting to hip hop – director Casey Affleck has confirmed that we were all being suckered (although scores of moviegoers continue to believe the film to be authentic).

I was very excited to see it. I knew the whole thing was a farce, and so to me, the sky was the limit – I predicted something in the same vein as Sasha Baron Cohen’s stuff. But I was wrong. What the film amounts to is a long, boring and largely unfunny narrative. There is the odd laugh when Phoenix’s improvised ramblings happen upon something chuckle-worthy, but not even the poignant ending compensated for the long hours I spent in a state of anticipation that was never sated.

Upon later reflection, though, I started to wonder if the film was intended for me. Had I watched the film under the impression that Joaquin is genuinely attempting to become a hip hop artist, I would have been shocked and moved by what I saw. The film’s grittiness – the drug taking, the nudity, and steady demise of his hygiene – would indeed have been very engaging if I was none the wiser. But I had known instinctually it was a charade since 2008 – and was duly disappointed by how “real” it felt. I wanted Borat, while Joaquin and Affleck were trying to create the most believable hoax possible.

But why? Do they consider the film a success? If all they were trying to do was fool people, I’m Still Here may indeed be a triumph. The friend I saw the film with – an intelligent and rational guy – was convinced that what he had seen was real, despite my attempts to convince him otherwise. Perhaps that’s why the words “Performance Art” keep being used to describe Joaquin’s antics. I would say it takes a fair degree of sacrifice and acting ability to do what he has done, but again – what was the point?

Throughout the film, Phoenix treats his loyal entourage like dirt, and on the whole, acts like a narcissistic, drug addicted pig. Maybe he was trying to satirize celebrity and what it has become. Maybe that’s what the film is — a grotesque mockery of celebrity culture. Or maybe he didn’t know what it was he was trying to do. I’d tell you to see the film and decide for yourself, but in all honesty, I’m not sure if it’s worth sitting through. If Performance Art is going to stick around, it needs to be less about fooling people and more about entertaining them.