In 2009, the movie world was confused and in uproar as Joaquin Phoenix announced that he would be retiring from acting, and that 2008's Two Lovers would be his final appearance on screen. To add a touch more of the bizarre into the mix, Phoenix would also be pursuing his apparent lifelong dream of being a rapper. His good friend and brother-in-law Casey Affleck would film everything, and as the pounds piled onto Phoenix, and his beard grew even more ridiculous, it gradually became obvious that this in fact was a big joke.
So the film itself follows Phoenix from his initial announcement of retirement from acting, to his attempts at getting a meeting with rap mogul P. Diddy, in order for him to produce his album. In between this, we see him self-destruct as the realisation hits him that he is indeed a crap rapper, and that everyone considers him a joke, from celebrities (Ben Stiller, David Letterman), to his best friend who ends up betraying him. We also see Phoenix sniffing cocaine from the breast of a stripper, fall of a stage whilst doing a rap gig, and have someone s**t on his face while he sleeps.
The big question is - what's the point? Well, it's quite an intelligent commentary of the nature of celebrity, and how people can buy into anything that they're told. Phoenix and Affleck apparently came up with the idea when they discovered that audiences didn't realise that 'reality' shows were scripted. The other important question is - does it work? Given Phoenix's heroic commitment to the film and the physical and mental strain he must have endured for the cause, you would hope so. Disappointingly, the answer is a resounding no.
Don't get me wrong, moments of this film I found bordered on absolute genius. Joaquin Phoenix's performance, for example, is simply breathtaking. You have to admire the way he completely gives himself over to the performance. Certain scenes where he is ranting about the way he is being perceived in the press, or he bounces around excitedly snorting cocaine awaiting for the arrival of prostitutes, you would be forgiven for not thinking twice that this was indeed reality.
But I think that is the main problem - it is too convincing. While other mockumentary's such as This Is Spinal Tap or Borat, are extremely funny while always maintaining the edge of realism, this film is not funny. This of course would be fine if the film was dramatic or absorbing, but it's neither of these things. It is at times very annoying, and often quite uncomfortable viewing, and the film has trouble maintaining a straight narrative.
After thinking about the film afterwards, I can't deny that its initial idea is interesting. Before the film, I could take or leave Joaquin Phoenix as an actor. He had never really overly impressed me with any of his performances, and I felt his most celebrated performance as Johnny Cash in Walk The Line, was only a great impression, not a great performance. But after this film, I'll be intrigued to see where his career turns to next, and I'll probably watch anything he does. It is disappointing, if not unsurprising, that he was overlooked an Oscar nomination for his performance here.