The concept of this film is following Joaquin Phoenix’s pretend breakdown over two years, as he pretends to quit acting, pretends to pursue a hip-hop career, and pretends to make a mockery of the media. Of course, the farce of it all is sniffed out not twenty minutes into the movie, and he and director Casey Affleck seem quite annoyed at that fact, but the film continues interminably on, trying to mine some type of point or drama out of ‘hoodwinking’ a media that doesn’t seem particularly hoodwinked. Affleck and Phoenix talked about the project after the fact as some kind of meditation on celebrity, send-up of reality television and the like, pointing to things like the absurdity of a thirty-five year old retiring. But the film plays everything so straight that there’s not really much entertainment factor on offer, and certainly no answers are offered to the questions the film supposedly raises.
At one point in the film, famous rapper and producer Diddy calls Phoenix out for tokenistically appropriating hiphop as a kind of comedic send-up. Phoenix (in character) denies this, but is there any other way to read the movie? He spits slurs, mocks accents, cavorts with hired prostitutes, treats his coworkers terribly…one wonders where exactly the joke is. That some people ‘believed’ it? What exactly isn’t to be believed? So Phoenix never intended to actually retire from acting, and the hip-hop career was actually a send-up after all. But all these things are addressed in the actual film! The artifice of it is leaked early on. Diddy calls out the tokenistic music. But things just chug on aimlessly, for no real point. The film is framed in a way that seems rather chuffed with itself, as did Phoenix on a follow-up interview on David Letterman where he explained the actual concept of the film, to which Letterman brusquely expressed displeasure over being used as a pawn and demanded compensation for being manipulated. There doesn’t seem to be much in the way of an actual joke, or actual point, here, beyond vague gestures at the notion of celebrity and artificial media narratives. Perhaps the fault is more at Affleck’s feet, for failing to cohere any of the footage into any kind of actual story. Credit to Phoenix for returning to actual cinema, and actual stories, after the protracted affair finally finished and was released in this form, such as it is. One and a half TMZ clips, and one too many shouting matches.