The "documentary" about two-time Oscar nominee Joaquin Phoenix's hip-hop career change, I'm Still Here, arrives in theaters today after premiering earlier this week at the Venice Film Festival. The reviews indicate that the film—directed by Phoenix's brother-in-law Casey Affleck (also an Oscar nominee)—is not the Borat-style mockumentary many expected. But there seems to be little dispute that it's on some level a put-on, a performance piece by a talented actor willing to put his entire career on the line for a "lost year" of terrible rapping.
Of course, this whole public stunt culminated in his February 11, 2009, appearance on the Late Show With David Letterman. The actor, hiding behind a large beard and sunglasses, appeared so uncomfortable during the interview that just to keep from looking away it became almost necessary to believe it was all somehow staged. Letterman got in some parting jabs, most notably "Joaquin, I'm sorry you couldn't be here tonight" (to which Phoenix, laughing uncomfortably, responded, "He's a funny dude"). In her review of I'm Still Here, Karina Longworth describes the backstage fallout Affleck captures: Phoenix appears "paralyzed with sadness"; "'I've fucked my fucking life,' he wails."
Lost in all this is the remarkable film Phoenix went on Letterman to promote in the first place, Two Lovers, which is currently available to "watch instantly" on Netflix. Writer-director James Gray's dark-edged dual romance—a loose adaptation of the Dostoevsky short story "White Nights" that he co-wrote with Ric Menello—features Phoenix as Leonard Kraditor, a 30-something who has moved in with his parents after a broken engagement and a subsequent suicide attempt. As the film opens Leonard has plunged himself into the ocean off a pier near Brighton Beach; after he's pulled out of the water, he tells his rescuers it was an accident and hurries home. He walks in the door of his family's apartment soaking wet. His parents are understandably worried. He gives an excuse—he fell into the bay—before insisting "Mom, I'm fine!" a number of times and closing the door to his room behind him.
These faux-exasperated excuses that Phoenix's man-child-ish Leonard comes up with to deflect the concern of his Russian-Jewish parents, played by Isabella Rossellini and Moni Moshonov, are just perfect. "There was a terrorist alert on the subway," he later says, with an exaggerated shrug, to explain why he didn't show when and where he was expected to. Two Lovers is a film full of amazing little details like these—another great touch is the way Phoenix's Leonard fumbles excitedly with his cell phone every time it rings.
The reserved but charming Leonard's two lovers are Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), the daughter of a man trying to merge his dry-cleaning business with that of Leonard's father—she's smart and even-keeled, but perhaps too safe—and Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), an impulsive legal assistant who lives in his building. Leonard professes to be in love with Michelle, who is herself in love with a married big-shot lawyer played by the incomparable Elias Koteas. But Leonard also often seems to savor the comfort provided by Sandra, who appears to be crazy about him.
Two Lovers marks Phoenix's third collaboration with Gray, after The Yards and We Own the Night. Admired in cineaste circles as a committed classicist, Gray makes unfashionably sincere Brooklyn-set movies populated by characters of surprising depth. In Two Lovers, Phoenix portrays an aspiring photographer—of depopulated landscapes, perhaps too predictably—who is painfully shy except when he's not; he does everything in his power to elude the attention of others in one scene, slouching and avoiding eye contact at the dinner table, only to breakdance his way through a packed nightclub in the next. Characters in films, particularly American ones, are rarely allowed to have such true-to-life mood swings.
Watching Two Lovers now, it's hard not to wonder whether Gray and Phoenix were somehow in cahoots with regard to the impending I'm Still Here stunt—it did, after all, begin to unfold over the course of the press blitz for their third collaboration. And there's also this curious scene: On the way to a club with Michelle and a couple of her friends—the club where he will demonstrate his surprising breakdancing prowess—Leonard lays down a knowingly bad rap to amuse the others in the car. Could this possibly have been the germ of Phoenix's whole persona overhaul?