Like pretty much everyone else who takes up space on the Interweb, I had the Pavlovian reaction to the video that surfaced of Joaquin Phoenix, uh, rapping: I wrote about it.
Speculation ran high at the time as to whether Phoenix, who had announced his intention to quit acting in favor of his music career, was joking. This was, after all, a pretty dire performance, and Phoenix is, if nothing else, a professional.
And now there's this, his appearance last night on David Letterman's show:
So this was a joke, right? He's merely affecting a clueless persona; no publicist would allow their client to appear that zonked out on national television. And he gives the game away--doesn't he?--by breaking character occasionally, as when he laughs at Letterman's Unabomber reference.
But if it's a joke...why? If he's doing some sort of conceptual comedy piece, he's merely treading the same ground as Andy Kaufman and Crispin Glover, who not only did the same sort of thing better, they even did it on Letterman's show. Isn't a smug, self-amused prank kind of an insult to whatever fans Phoenix still has? And isn't pretending to be a zoned-out guy on a downward spiral kind of tasteless (and supremely unfunny) when his more-talented older brother famously overdosed on heroin?
Which leads to the other possibility--maybe it's not a joke. Maybe this guy really is a casualty waiting to happen, and Letterman's treatment of him was unbearably cruel. But no, I think Letterman got it just right. After all, if Phoenix is on some sort of death trip (and he certainly is career-wise), he deserves to be called on it. Whether he's joking or dying, he's clearly not doing it alone, and either way, his appearance here reveals him to be thoroughly detestable, entirely worthy of Letterman's scorn and everyone else's.