The Gladiator star announced his retirement from the acting world, grew a beard and took his first foray into becoming a rapper, jumping off stage to scrap with hecklers, embarrassing himself in the process.
There was a sizable buzz around the internet during this development, anyone who watched his excruciating interview with David Letterman will remember cringing in quiet embarrassment, as his mumbling one-syllable answers left Letterman desperate to fill the void of silence.
However, rumours of a faux documentary engineered by Phoenix and Casey Affleck began to surface, and with that shred of doubt about the legitimacy of the stunt the whole business began to fade into obscurity. Months later, the very first trailer for “I’m Still Here” has been released, scheduled for a September 10 release – a documentary about a fallen Joaquin Phoenix, directed by Casey Affleck.
There was of course speculation that it was all a big publicity stunt, but most commentators could not believe that Phoenix would stake his career on such a risky strategy. Both Affleck and Phoenix should be applauded for the high stakes that they dealt with and indeed still deal with, as they intend to keep the mystery alive right up until the release of the film.
Using a legitimate actor and his career as a promotional tool for his own film pushes the boundaries of innovative marketing, and should definitely be praised for the inventiveness of the plan. It is the idea of Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat, pushed to the logical extreme –using the life of a ‘real’ person to market a film, instead of a character that is maintained.
However, Affleck and Phoenix seem to have missed the target. The film is said to have limited release which means, for reasons unknown, relatively few cinemas will show it. Where Borat succeeded is how Baron Cohen’s character exploded in popularity; high exposure is key. All the crude humour, racism and naked wrestling worked in his favour as Cohen’s bumbling Kazakh garnered a huge amount of publicity and drove the film to success. Everyone needs to know that the film actually exists for the plan to work – and I am not sure the trailer has had enough exposure to convince people that it is not simply Joaquin’s breakdown.
Phoenix and Affleck are also shooting themselves in the foot by not keeping up appearances, performing increasingly outrageous stunts and working up to a much wider release of the film. Phoenix performing at Glastonbury? Rumours of a Hilton-esque cocaine charge? The possibilities were endless once the pair opened the door, yet they were never fully exploited.
Considering untapped potential for this avant-garde scheme, Joaquin Phoenix may not have been the right man for the job in the first place. While a suitably accomplished actor, Phoenix never really broke into household name status. For an almost Oedipal fall from grace, you need someone high profile enough that the public would have had a field day, for example, Johnny Depp or Brad Pitt. If the man on the street only knows Phoenix as “the Johnny Cash guy”, they will hardly flock to see his disgraceful (fictional or otherwise) downward spiral. While it may have been a brave effort and is definitely pushing the envelope in the age of unoriginal remakes and prequels, the idea ultimately leaves much to be desired.
Of course, there is always the other (much more unlikely) outcome that his breakdown and change of career path was a legitimate event, and Affleck is merely documenting the star’s fall from grace at his request. I have very, very strong doubts about this, but felt it would be prudent to at least mention it, in case the above five hundred words turn out to be completely and tragically wrong. Time, in this case about a week until the first reviews come in, will tell.
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