Judging from the early reaction inside Hollywood, Casey Affleck and Joaquin Phoenix will have a lot of explaining to do in the coming days.
It turns out that Affleck's "I'm Still Here," which purported to be a documentary, depicting an out-of-control Phoenix self-destructing before our very eyes, was actually a hoax. Virtually all of the footage, notably the scenes of Phoenix doing drugs, consorting with hookers and berating his personal assistants, was fake.
Affleck's embarrassingly weak defense? "I never intended to trick anybody," he told the New York Times. "The idea of quote, hoax, unquote, never entered my mind." He said he wanted viewers to experience the film's narrative, about the disintegration of celebrity, without being clouded by preconceived notions. "We wanted to create a space. You believe what is happening is real," adding that he considered what Phoenix did on screen "a terrific performance, it's the performance of his career."
While it's a performance, it's also undeniably a trick. In fact, Affleck had clearly hoped to trick as many people as possible, at least in the sense of making audiences wonder if what they were seeing was real or staged — or some strange new hybrid art form.
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He failed in the most obvious way. Even though the film has attracted a mountain of press attention — there's nothing the media loves more than the prospect of eyeballing a celebrity in a steep career tailspin — very few people have bothered to see the film, which has been in limited release in selected cities around the country. And while some critics, such as Roger Ebert, were upset by Phoenix's behavior, a number of others, like my colleague Kenneth Turan and the New York TImes' Manohla Dargis, seemed to immediately suspect the film was a put-on.
Dargis described the movie as "a deadpan satire or a deeply sincere folly (my money is on the first option)," adding that the film was being "unpersuasively sold as a documentary."
So what was Affleck really up to? I suspect that he (and Phoenix) thought it would be a real kick to see how many people they could embarrass and fool into taking the whole spectacle seriously, especially the supposed rubes in the media whom they clearly despise. People in Hollywood have little concern for truthtelling, since there is so little of it in their daily showbiz lives, where everyone is passing themselves off as something they aren't, whether it's lying about their age, how much cosmetic work they've had done or how much they supposedly liked their best friend's new movie — you know, the one they secretly hated every minute of.
It was especially telling that the first two showbiz insiders I spoke to after the news broke had similar reactions — as in, big deal. To hear them tell it, the film was an eccentric, not to mention self-important, exercise in foolishness, concocted by two knuckleheads who seemed peeved either because they didn't have successful A-list careers or because they thought the industry was too dull and mindless to allow them to take the kind of bold risks that real artists take.
If Affleck and Phoenix had really pulled off the hoax — i.e., drawn big crowds to see the movie — perhaps their peers would've showed more respect. But in Hollywood, people keep their distance from failure, always afraid of being too close to the stink. The early betting line is that Affleck won't be getting to direct another movie any time soon. Affleck likes to think of the movie as "gonzo filmmaking." But his detractors see it as little more than clownish score settling.
As one industry agent put it, looking ahead to Phoenix's scheduled appearance Wednesday on David Letterman's late-night show, "Boy, if Letterman wasn't in on the joke, he is really going to take that poor guy to the cleaners."