It's been just over 1 1/2 years since Joaquin Phoenix's memorably bizarre appearance on "Late Show With David Letterman," during which few intelligible sentences passed through his lips, all but obscured by a Unabomber-like beard.
Last week, Phoenix appeared on the rise again with the release of a somewhat cryptic trailer for his new movie, "I'm Still Here," which seems to be a continuation of him playing what we suspect (or at least hope) is the off-the-wall character who amused and bemused Letterman.
But these days, Phoenix's biggest challenge might be standing out in the crowd: Some 18 months after his talk show stunt (or meltdown), the entertainment world has turned increasingly absurd.
Or, more bluntly put: Joaquin Phoenix doesn’t seem all that weird anymore.
Much has transpired since his Letterman visit. A couple seeking a TV show falsely reported their son was a stowaway on a homemade balloon, and got jail time. A couple seeking a TV show crashed a White House dinner, and got on a reality program.
Levi Johnston, the father of Sarah Palin's grandchild, filed papers this week to run for mayor of Wasilla, Alaska. His campaign reportedly will be fodder for a reality show – a move that could almost be seen as an attempt at political satire if not for his overdeveloped opportunism and underdeveloped sense of irony.
And we learned this week from The Hollywood Reporter that “Jersey Shore” star The Situation stands to make $5 million this year – earning him more money than such actual acting talents as Edie Falco, Scarlett Johansson and Don Cheadle, the trade publication notes. This sum apparently doesn’t count The Situation’s reported upcoming gig on "Dancing With the Stars."
The ab man's ascension is hard to stomach, though there are signs, beyond his apparent financial acumen, that he might be more clever than he lets on amid the shirt-raising and fist pumping.
Funny or Die late last year featured a parody video with The Situation and cast mates Snooki and Pauly D, portraying them as actors discussing their parts after the cameras stop rolling. Snooki, as usual, doesn’t seem to have a clue. Pauly D gamely tries to affect a British thespian’s accent, though his tone more Cockney than Royal Shakespeare Company.
The Situation gets the best lines – and seems to actually get the joke. To paraphrase Shakespeare, all the world’s a stage – and The Situation is a playa. “"I fear my character, The Situation, is like a lost orphan boy in the meadow and I know not how to get him home," he cries, in mock dramatic voice. "Every time I lift my shirt, a little piece of me dies"
In the “I’m Still Here” trailer, we see the still-bearded Phoenix variously rapping, visiting a church, doding paparazzi and generally acting strange.
It’s hard to tell exactly what the film, directed by Phoenix’s brother-in-law Casey Affleck and set to open Sept. 10, is about. The 35-year-old star, who has shown impressive acting chops in films like “Walk the Line,” either should be hailed for committing to this oddball character – or perhaps be committed if this really isn’t one big comic, performance art piece after all.
Though Phoenix and Affleck seem to be headed for “Borat” mockumentary territory, we’re reminded more of Andy Kaufman, who also used the Letterman springboard for his surreal leap into the exposing the silliness of celebrity.
Not everybody got Kaufman’s spoiled star and wrestling fanatic act, at least not right away. While he enjoyed a reasonably successful career, we’re betting Kaufman never made $5 million a year.
Still, some 26 years later after his death from cancer at 35, Kaufman’s antics still inspire debate, and, in some circles, a mix of reverence and laughter. Which may be what Phoenix is shooting for – and which is more, hopefully, than we’ll be able to say for the likes of the Balloon Boy’s parents, the White House Party Crashers, Levi Johnston and even The Situation a quarter century from now.
Meanwhile, check out Phoenix’s trailer and The Situation’s comic turn below, and decide which of these characters might be pulling the bigger ruse.
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.