As you can see, he appeared disheveled, confused, and probably (to use the clinical term) stoned out of his gourd. For most of the American public, this was the first look they had of the "new" Joaquin Phoenix --- no longer an actor, but apparently an aspiring hip-hop artist/advocate of not bathing.
What we saw on Letterman was also the climax of the documentary that Phoenix's brother-in-law, Casey Affleck, was filming about Joaquin's retirement from acting and his "budding" rap career. I'm Still Here starts in late-2008, with Joaquin declaring his retirement to a random TV journalist at a press event. Over the next three or four months, the cameras follow him as Joaquin tries to articulate just why he doesn't want to act anymore. It has something to do with too much time spent on preparation and direction, and not enough time spent being creative. Okay, that's a fair critique of professional acting, I guess. Of course, I paraphrased JP's (as he wants people to call him) f-bomb littered ramblings. I believe his exact words were, "mumble mumble mumble shit." If you like incoherent mumbling, though, this movie is a gold mine. The majority of the film follows JP as he complains about being taken seriously and all the phoniness of celebrity life; some time is spent as he tries desperately to get Sean "Diddy" Combs to listen to (and produce) his album, but that is just a symptom of his disgust with whatever it is he's trying to get away from. Unfortunately, JP is a terrible, terrible rapper. Worse than Macho Man Randy Savage. And it's obvious. He has no hope of a rap career, and he burns his bridges in the film community. What else does a downward spiral need? Narcissism, sex and drugs? Check, check, and check. Aside from the constant smoking of what appears to be pot and the frequent snorting of what appears to be cocaine, viewers get to see (well, I don't know if "get to" is the right phrase; it's not like this is a prize) JP order some hookers and abuse his closest friends for his own mistakes. The Letterman appearance is the climax of the film, but there is plenty of falling action afterward, as JP has to figure out his next step.
As a documentary, I'm Still Here is a complete mess. Affleck's direction is awful, the camera work is terrible, and the sound sucks. Aside from the pretentious inclusion of an old home video to serve as a bookend to the film, it doesn't really go anywhere or have anything to say. You would think that this was documenting the fall of Joaquin Phoenix, but it's not; he was already at the bottom when this started filming, his hobo beard just hadn't grown in yet. JP is completely unlikable throughout, and everything he says sounds like art school bullshit. You would hear less whining if you went to a Goth convention. The most likable people in the whole film are the two who are the meanest to Joaquin. Diddy gave him some pretty kind advice on his music, but scoffed at the idea of them working together, while his buddy/assistant Anton eventually tired of JP's abuse and literally crapped on his head. But even that slight amusement is not nearly enough to make this documentary worth seeing.
Of course, this isn't a documentary. Aside from the fact that Joaquin Phoenix and Casey Affleck received writing credits for the film, some cast members did not star as themselves, the cameras and sound are rolling at all hours of the day (even after JP is asleep) and...well, I'm sorry, but this movie is just beyond any suspension of disbelief. There is no way in hell that Affleck's wife, Joaquin's sister, would have let him release this movie; well, not if he wanted to stay married, anyway. There is zero chance that professional escorts would allow themselves to be filmed (with a cameraman and sound guy) screwing around with movie stars. And I find it hard to believe that any documentary about hip-hop would include this much gratuitous penis on camera. After the movie was released in theaters this fall, everyone involved admitted that the film was a hoax. Gasp. I'm crushed.
Here's the problem: even when you know that this film is a joke (and, trust me, you know within minutes of its start), it's still not funny. The best mockumentaries (This is Spinal Tap, Borat, Best in Show, etc.) are funny because they are, in some ways, spot-on with their interpretations of what the public assumes their characters are like (rock stars, foreigners, dog people). But then, they surprise us with totally left-field personality traits, or so-dumb-it-has-to-be-true moments (lost behind the stage, outrageous racism, Fred Willard). I'm Still Here doesn't make any jokes, aside from the prolonged joke of JP's rapping career. This movie is ridiculous, but it's never funny. That is very, very frustrating. So, what is this mockumentary mocking? I assume that it's supposed to be poking fun at our culture's obsession with celebrities and/or reality television. It doesn't really matter, since this film completely fails in either respect.
This was a very upsetting film. I don't usually look at someone defecating on the star of a film as the high point in the movie, but that is the situation I find myself in; worse, my immediate reaction was "now, hit him in the face with a shovel!" It's difficult for me to articulate just how much I despise this film. It's pretentious on the surface (everything that comes out of JP's mouth), and it's pretentious as a finished product ("It doesn't suck, you just don't get it..."). This is a movie that feels like it wants to say something important, aside from "gotcha!" but never even tries. Have you ever gone on a date with someone and realized that everything they laugh at, you hate? That's how this movie makes me feel. There is nothing funny about this movie, there is nothing true in this movie...in fact, there is nothing redeeming in this movie at all. "But what about the penises and the pooping?" There's a wide world of porn out there for anyone interested in those things, and I can guarantee that the production quality would be better than this film. Utterly worthless.
As a mini-tribute to David Letterman, here's my list of ten awful things that would have made this movie better:
- All of Joaquin's friends go to a costume party with him, and they all dressed as his dead brother, River.
- Have M. Night Shyamalan throw water on Joaquin, making him melt. That's why he hasn't washed his hair in months! He's one of the aliens from Signs!
- Forty minutes of dead baby jokes.
- Complementary picked koala paste with purchase of the DVD.
- The cast of Twilight made a commentary track where they explain particle physics.
- Thunderbird bum wine.
- Having Casey Affleck wake up and realize it was all a dream. And then realize that he's in bed next to Bob Newhart. And their home is inside the snow globe of an autistic child.
- Getting stuck in an elevator during a blackout after you've taken a pound of horse laxatives. And there are eight other people in the elevator with you.
- In the ultimate act of defiance against the culture of beauty in Hollywood, Joaquin tears his lip open because his cleft lip was "real" and Hollywood is fake.
- A tornado hits Joaquin Phoenix's home, decimating the crew and scattering various bodies through walls, trees, and pavement. As the movie fades to black, you hear "Why did we waste the last days of our life making something so awful...?!?"