There’s an episode of The Simpsons where Bart dreams of being a rock star. Rather than picturing himself popular and swathed in adoring fans, instead, Bart pictures himself drunk, bloated and dyspeptic. In The Simpsons, it’s a joke. In Hollywood, it’s the truth. Fame is rotten, but the rot has allure. That’s why famous people find it so hard to be good, because people want them for their fame, and unadulterated want…won’t judge, even the most heinous crimes. Famous people act badly the way sinking ships set off distress flares. Every ugly scene is a warning: “I’m poison” it says. Joaquin Phoenix’s new movie, I’m Still Here, is a quasi-comedy about toxic celebrity. It’s the sort of movie Mel Gibson should watch on a loop.
I have no idea who’s talking to Joaquin Phoenix in this trailer, but I like what he’s saying… That’s you: drops of water. And you’re on top of the mountain; a success. But one day you start sliding down the mountain. You think: “Wait a minute. I’m a mountain top water drop. I don’t belong in this valley, this river, this low dark ocean with all these drops of water.” Then one day it gets hot, and you slowly evaporate into air; way up, higher than any mountain top; all the way to the heavens. And then you understand that it was at your lowest that you were closest to God. Life’s a journey that goes round and round, and the end is closest to the beginning. So if it’s change you need, relish the journey.
This is the kind of movie you expect from an actor turned director: subdued, character-led, respectable. No-one goes Herzog their first time out. Even Mel Gibson waited until his third movie before he went bananas. Actors – leading men, especially – want their first movie to announce: I’m serious. Witness Bob Redford directing Ordinary People; Mel directing The Man Without a Face. Ben Affleck has studied this model carefully during his wilderness years; chosen his source material from an approved writer (Dennis Lehane, who also wrote Mystic River); picked a lot of pug-ugly non-actors for “authenticity”. Michael Bay mightn’t love it; John Cassavetes would.