If there is one internet phrase that can best describe the general public's reaction toward Joaquin Phoenix's two-year performance art act, it is this: "obvious troll is obvious."
No one seemed particularly surprised when Casey Affleck, director of I'm Still Here, admitted that his brother-in-law's documented descent into drug abuse, possible mental illness, and physical deterioration as he sought to kickstart his rap career was all for show, an experiment in blurring the lines between fiction and reality that Affleck described as "the performance of [Phoenix's] career."
That performance, on film, anyway, was not well-received by critics, who seemed both confused and bored by the whole thing, though Roger Ebert, who initially gave the film a decent review and claimed he'd be "pissed" if he found out the documentary was, in fact, fake, posted a follow-up piece in which he noted that the disclosure of the film's reality (or lack thereof) only serves to bring up several more questions, and Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly, who also believed that the film was real, now wonders if Affleck's recent "it was a hoax" spin is, in fact, the actual hoax, designed to cover up for the film's poor reception.
Alex Balk at The Awl had a different take on the project, calling Phoenix and Affleck "geniuses" if only because the spectacular failure of their film, on multiple levels, simply serves to show the public how hard it is to pull something like this off: "I'm Still Here, for all the critical, commercial and existential hatred it has deservedly received, is an important work for that very reason: we need abysmal catastrophes like it to help us recognize what is really worthwhile."
But were Phoenix's two years as "Joaquin Phoenix: Downward Spiral Edition" really a failure? The film itself is ultimately unimportant: it is the public's own documentation, via our obsession with celebrity culture, of Phoenix's transformation that will stand as the real record of his performance art experiment. Phoenix, in playing an unpleasant version of himself, was able, at the very least, to challenge people to react, even if they weren't entirely sure why they were letting him get under their skin. He was, in essence, trolling the world. The comparisons are often made to Andy Kaufman, but a more apt comparison is perhaps the nature of the internet: Phoenix is a troll, a meme, a Snopes.com article, a commenter, a viral video, and everything about the celebrity industrial complex, all rolled into one. Maybe he finds being shit on on film a little less degrading then having cum stains scrawled on his face by Perez Hilton.
The most interesting part of Phoenix's experiment is that even the people who believed it was fake all along still got angry, still got annoyed, still made judgments on his motivations, still brought up the undying comparisons with his brother (and the way River died—how could he fake drug addiction when River overdosed?), and played the part they were most likely expected to play. Look at me! I'm a part of the show, too, writing a blog post making assumptions about the motivations behind a project created by an actor I've never met or talked to in my life. Even if nobody sees Phoenix's film, everyone who has ever commented on his performance over the last few years has been a part of it, right down to the reaction we collectively gave when Affleck came clean and the film hit the theaters: a big WTF, followed by a FAIL, followed by a "cool story, bro," before we got bored and moved on to something else.