May 26, 2024

What is Joaquin Phoenix so unhappy about? And so twitchy? We’ve all seen someone triumph at the Oscars and use their acceptance speech to push a social cause (in fact, it’s almost required). But I’ve never seen a speech quite like the one Phoenix gave in 2020 when he took the best actor award for “Joker.” The film had gotten mixed reviews from critics (what were they so unhappy about?), so the win carried an element of vindication. Yet Phoenix treated the moment like a plea of desperation combined with a dirge.

Stroking his face and beard with that slightly manic pensive concern, he said, “I’ve been thinking a lot about some of the distressing issues that we are facing collectively.” Then, in a free-form ramble about the various modes of injustice, and how they’re really all the same, he observed that “many of us, what we’re guilty of is an egocentric worldview, the belief that we’re the center of the universe.” His big example of this? “We feel entitled to artificially inseminate a cow, and when she gives birth, we steal her baby even though her cries of anguish are unmistakable.” He then harangued those of us who put that cow’s milk “in our coffee and our cereal,” at which point I began to wonder: When was the last time an Oscar speech made me feel this bad? (And I was one of the few critics who loved “Joker.”)   

Phoenix’s own cry of anguish was (and is) unmistakable. It has become the defining note of his onscreen presence. He’s an actor who, if you look at any one of his movies, seems to be performing on the high wire, going way, way off the beaten track, to inner places both radical and revelatory. Yet if you take a step back and look at the big picture of his career, you start to see just how much those performances have in common. Kyle Smith, in his Wall Street Journal review of “Napoleon,” tweaked Phoenix for making every character he plays “morose, anguished, petulant and a bit childlike,” and it’s true — he has become such a flamboyant hunk of miserablism that you can fill in your own adjectives for almost every role.

In “Her,” Phoenix played a mopey, awkward dyspeptic ghost writer who falls in love with his AI assistant. In “The Master,” he played a mopey, awkward dyspeptic World War II veteran who comes under the spell of a tyrannical cult leader. In “Joker,” he played a mopey, awkward dyspeptic loser who becomes a psychotic clown villain. In “Beau Is Afraid,” he played a mopey, awkward dyspeptic geek who goes through an endless dreamscape only to discover that his castrating mother was right about him. And in “Napoleon,” he plays a mopey, awkward dyspeptic early-19th-century European conqueror who yearns to fight and win battles and rule France, though it’s never remotely clear why.

I’m being unfair, of course. I’m leaving out that Phoenix, at his best, is a great actor. (I love him in “Joker,” “Gladiator,” “You Were Never Really Here.”) And as the returns on “Napoleon” indicate, he is certainly still a draw. But here’s the thing about his frowning saturnine bad-vibe persona. What does it mean? What is it that Joaquin Phoenix is out to communicate — the human truth he wants to lay bare? The statement his acting seems to be making, more and more, is that the world is too dire, too mired in injustice — that there are too many people putting cream in their coffee — for him to allow any pleasure to seep into his acting. His acting must be something different: a projection of our despair and our collective penance. He’s going to mope and mumble for our sins!

Marlon Brando, when he first came on the movie scene in the early ’50s, was widely accused of mumbling, and in hindsight that’s a touchingly myopic criticism, since he spoke unclearly only compared to the hyper-enunciation of the studio-system actors. Brando was the revolutionary realist of cinema. But Joaquin Phoenix really does mumble — he plays Napoleon in a mush-mouthed snit, as a kind of whiny troll Hamlet, ploughing through the lines with his gravel-voiced disaffection. He seems to be not so much carrying forth the spirit of Brando as imitating Brando’s worst performances, the ones where he would hijack a movie for the sheer hell of it, taking it over with his flaky mythology. (He was acting out his contempt for movies.)

On some abstract level we get it: Phoenix and his director, Ridley Scott, are going for a revisionist take on Napoleon, one that ties into the current vogue for questioning the history of male aggression. But how can you engage an audience in the tale of a conqueror who shows so little joy in conquering? The real message of Phoenix’s performance is a perverse signal of vanity: If he refuses to make Napoleon charismatic in any of the usual ways, then it must mean that we’ll be held by the charisma of Phoenix himself, and only by that charisma. Except we aren’t.

The movie that provides the greatest clue to the increasingly solipsistic mystery of Joaquin Phoenix’s acting is “I’m Still Here,” the fake documentary he made in 2010 in collaboration with Casey Affleck (who directed it). It was a movie that supposedly followed Phoenix’s attempt to leave the acting world behind and become a rap star. But what it really chronicled was his descent, behind a bushy beard and I-wear-my-sunglasses-at-night zombie hauteur, into a kind of mental dissolution. The drama the movie presented is that we were watching Joaquin Phoenix fall apart on camera.

I confess I was one of the people who got taken in by the movie’s fake reality. Reviewing “I’m Still Here” at the time, I thought it was real. When the ruse was revealed, I wrote a column about it as a critical mea culpa, but the point wasn’t just to confess my gullibility. It was to say that now that we knew the movie was staged, it looked twice as mesmerizing. It established Phoenix as an actor of singular audacity.

Yet maybe the reason “I’m Still Here” was so convincing as a deadpan mock doc is that Phoenix, in satirizing the egomania of his celebrity, was acting out some essential spiritual dimension of himself. The character we see in “I’m Still Here” — and it is a character, which is why it’s one of Phoenix’s most accomplished performances — is pretending to leave the world of movie-star fame behind, but he’s doing it all for show. He’s abandoning his career for something “real,” yet his idea of what will make him more genuine (he’ll be a rapper!) is just another Hollywood sham. He’s doing it all for himself, a perception that’s only reinforced by the film’s meta japery (Joaquin Phoenix playing Joaquin Phoenix pretending to be a “purer” version of Joaquin Phoenix). The character in “I’m Still Here” is an actor who replaces performance with the actorly exhibitionism of mental illness.

And that, in a way, has become the story of Joaquin Phoenix as an actor. Whether he’s taking on the role of one more morose everyman dweeb, a “Batman” villain, or Napoleon, he plays severely damaged people, but what he’s really doing is projecting the dramatic image of himself as an actor reaching into the lower depths. On occasion, he transcends the self-focused gloom and brings off something miraculous. I thought he was genuinely great in “Joker,” in part because the director, Todd Phillips, knew how to build and sculpt Phoenix’s performance; let’s hope that he helps Phoenix bring off a comparable feat opposite Lady Gaga in “Joker: Folie à Deux.” But as films like “Napoleon” and “Beau Is Afraid” reveal all too clearly, Joaquin Phoenix has become an actor who needs to be rescued from his worst impulses. Too often, he sinks into his own torpor, steamrolling his movies with the depressive wacked song of himself.

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