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i'm still here

How Will Joaquin Phoenix’s Year of Performance Art Play Out?

With its release only a few weeks away, Casey Affleck's Joaquin Phoenix documentary, I'm Still Here, impressively remains a minor mystery. Back in May, the L.A. Times dug up some ribald details (Cocaine! Oral sex! Defecation!). Last week the teaser trailer for the movie (out September 10) was released, packing stirring New Age–y voice-over narration and images of an impressively pot-bellied Phoenix. And other than that … just about zilch. So while all signs point to fake, it's still not exactly clear where this falls on the mock-to-documentary scale: Was all of Joaquin's descent into hirsute inscrutability calculated for Affleck's movie, or did he, at least at one point, truly want to ditch acting for rapping? As we see it, this could go one of four ways: (1) The movie's fake, but Joaquin denies it. (2) The movie's fake, and Joaquin admits it. (3) The movie's fake, and Joaquin more or less admits it without saying those exact words. (4) The movie's real. Which would be optimal for Joaquin's post–I'm Still Here career? Let's take a closer look.

Option No. 1: The movie's clearly fake, but Phoenix doesn't explicitly admit it.

Ever since Casey Affleck's involvement as documentarian came to light, it's been widely assumed Phoenix's breakdown was a stunt from day one. So does Phoenix have the dedication — and the balls — to never admit as much? He could, theoretically, go back to his normal-person persona and start landing lead roles again, all while chalking up his foray into rapping and mumbling as a “strange time in my life” during press-junket interviews. This option also leaves the door open for what's quickly becoming known as the Full Franco: a busy slate of mainstream movies right alongside bewildering public performance-art projects. Not a bad choice.

Seems like the most likely option, if the least fun. This allows Phoenix to break character gradually: first with a series of interviews in which he strongly hints that he's not crazy by saying boring things like “we had a lot of fun making I'm Still Here” and “it was really a wild experience” and "a chance to do something different"; then, with a series of public appearances in which he doesn't do or wear anything notable. A video of a mild-mannered Phoenix talking up a suicide-prevention charity, which showed up early this year, may mean option No. 3 is already be happening. This approach may prove to be not only anticlimactic, but problematic — without clear ownership or denial, both audiences and directors won't be sure what to make of Joaquin. Is he a rapping beardo? Or just a guy who pretended to be a rapping beardo for fun?

This would of course go down on a return visit to the Late Show With David Letterman, with a fresh-faced smiley Joaquin revealing his secretive plot and then gamely taking a good-natured chuckle-filled chiding from Dave for putting one over on him. If it's revealed that Letterman was in on it, too — just like he was for some of the old Andy Kaufman stunts — all the better. If this maneuver is executed correctly, expect all manners of magazine features exploring and extolling the strange psyche of Joaquin Phoenix, Legitimately Interesting Young Hollywood Actor.

Option No. 3: The movie's clearly fake, and Phoenix more or less admits it without explicitly saying so.

Seems like the most likely option, if the least fun. This allows Phoenix to break character gradually: first with a series of interviews in which he strongly hints that he's not crazy by saying boring things like “we had a lot of fun making I'm Still Here” and “it was really a wild experience” and "a chance to do something different"; then, with a series of public appearances in which he doesn't do or wear anything notable. A video of a mild-mannered Phoenix talking up a suicide-prevention charity, which showed up early this year, may mean option No. 3 is already be happening. This approach may prove to be not only anticlimactic, but problematic — without clear ownership or denial, both audiences and directors won't be sure what to make of Joaquin. Is he a rapping beardo? Or just a guy who pretended to be a rapping beardo for fun?

Option No. 4: It was all real.

Joaquin Phoenix totally did flip out! The Letterman thing really was that awkward! Casey Affleck was filming the whole thing because he films everything Joaquin Phoenix does, just for fun! Also, the subsequent Joaquin Phoenix rap album sounds like if Illmatic had a baby with Ready to Die, then Illmatic and Ready to Die died in a car crash and the baby was raised by Illmatic and Ready to Die's best friends, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) and Reasonable Doubt. Oscars and Grammys to come!

Obviously, we're pulling for No. 4.

Photo: Magnolia Pictures