Friday, February 27, 2009

Joking About a Jokester?

Here's a riddle for you: What do you accomplish when you take the piss out of a celebrity who is taking the piss out of the whole notion of celebrity?

Both the Independent Spirit Awards and the Oscars featured bits in which actors dressed as the new Joaquin Phoenix, all bushy-haired, bearded and brimming over with detached incoherence (kind of like me if my hair weren't straight). And both imitations got laughs. But neither was funnier than Phoenix himself. There's something inherently wrong about sending up this performance. It's like insulting Charlie Chaplin for walking funny. It's like making fun of Sacha Baron Cohen for acting like a flamboyant Euro-trash fashion reporter.

I'm 95-percent certain that Phoenix's retirement from acting and his unlikely pursuit of a hip-hop career are all part of a Kaufmanesque prank. [bxA]If it weren't, I doubt that Casey Affleck would sit back and direct a documentary about his friend's apparent mental disintegration. It wouldn't surprise me if Affleck and Phoenix actually anticipated the entire media uproar.

While the whole leaving-acting-for-hip-hop story has been going on for a while, it came into the mainstream when Pheonix went on David Letterman to promote his "final performance" in James Gray's "Two Lovers." The officially sanctioned online highlight reel from Letterman's show was only half as long as the real interview, and deleted much of the funniest material—Phoenix's responses—in favor of awkward silences and quips from Letterman. Watching the whole thing and considering Phoenix's talent, I attribute it not to a clueless has-been, but a virtuoso performer. Watch the moment when Letterman insults his guest for chewing gum on the show. Phoenix immediately says, "I don't have to chew gum," takes his gum out of his mouth and sticks it under Dave's desk. And it's hilarious. But in hindsight, it more accurately reflects a fast-thinking improvisational actor than a guy so out of it he can barely answer a question.

If the whole thing isn't a joke, which is highly unlikely, then it reflects a choice on Phoenix's part not to engage in the typical banter of TV interviews. The man has been doing promotional appearances for years. He knows how to put on a fun, charming face, and if he really wanted his hip-hop career to take off, he would have put it on for that interview. The man knows what he's doing, even if the rest of us haven't a clue. And his work/stunt/statement/prank/whatever will be remembered significantly more than any comedic riff on it. If those riffs are remembered at all, that is.


Anonymous said...

You just like him because he looks like you now. ;)

Seriously though, this is by far the most interested I have ever been in Joaquin Phoenix's career.

Stewf said...

Very insightful. Post and comment, both.

Ashley said...

I appreciate your recognition of Phoenix's quick-thinking improv in sticking the gum under the table. I used that exact argument to support the idea of all this just being an act, but no one else saw it. Phoenix definitely seemed to be hyper-aware of what he was doing. A strung-out, mentally unstable person would not react in the same way.

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