It's the sequel so many have been waiting for: Wednesday night, Joaquin Phoenix returned to David Letterman's "Late Show" to promote his apparent mockumentary, "I'm Still Here." It marked the first time Phoenix has appeared on a late night talk show since he infamously stuck gum on Letterman's desk while guesting on the show in 2009.
This time, Phoenix walked out on stage clean shaven and dressed in a suit and a tie, unlike the "character" he played when he was on the show last year. During that appearance, Phoenix had a beard and wore dark sunglasses and exhibited bizarre behavior.
Letterman pointed this out as he began the interview.
"I've been to see your movies, I've always liked you. I recognize you as a powerful talent – that Johnny Cash thing, you were tremendous in that. And then a year and a half ago, you come out and, honestly, it's like you slipped and hit your head in the tub. And I knew immediately when you sat down, something ain't right, because if you're really the way you appeared to be, you don't go out. You know what I mean? People don't let guys like you out if you're really like that. You don't go out," Letterman said.
Phoenix thanked Letterman for letting him on the show both times and apologized for any trouble he caused.
"You've interviewed many, many people and I assumed that you would know the difference between a character and a real person, so — but I apologize," Phoenix said. "I hope I didn't offend you in any way."
Letterman said he took no offense and said it was so much fun and "it was like batting practice."
Phoenix said he had hoped to appear on a talk show and received the "beatdown" he wanted.
Phoenix said the whole point of the appearance was to do something authentic for the mockumentary.
"We didn't know how the public would respond...it snowballed and it became a big thing," he said.
Although he repeatedly said he was not "in" on the stunt, Letterman later joked that he wanted a $1 million for his part in the film.
He said it was for his appearance fee.
Phoenix said they've only made 75 cents on the film and promised to "work it out."
Phoenix's appearance on Letterman's show also marked the first time he's spoken candidly about "I'm Still Here," which was directed by his actor brother-in-law, Casey Affleck. Initially billed as a documentary that followed Phoenix's decision to quit acting and take up rapping, Affleck admitted last week that Phoenix was actually acting throughout the movie. He said that much of the film, including the infamous 2009 "Late Show" appearance, was staged.
"It's a terrific performance, it's the performance of his career," Affleck told the New York Times last week. "I never intended to trick anybody. The idea of a quote, hoax, unquote, never entered my mind."
But prior to the film's release, Affleck insisted "I'm Still Here" was 100-percent real.
"I can tell you there is no hoax," he told reporters at the Venice Film Festival earlier this month. "It makes me think of 'Candid Camera' or something."
Critical reception to the film has been mixed. In the Chicago Sun-Times, Roger Ebert called "I'm Still Here" "A sad and painful documentary that serves little useful purpose other than to pound another nail into the coffin. Here is a gifted actor who apparently by his own decision has brought desolation upon his head."
On Slate.com, Dana Stevens wrote, "The worst thing about I'm Still Here is the fact that it exists."
To be fair, "I'm Still Here" isn't an easy movie to stomach. It follows Phoenix through blow-up after blow-up, joint after joint, beer after beer. He screams, he smokes, he snorts.
Over the course of a months-long quest for legitimacy that takes him all over the country and eventually to Panama, Phoenix insists that he's better than everyone else, that he deserves A-list treatment, that he's too cool for Hollywood, that he's got what it takes to make it as an emcee, and that no, this whole quitting-acting-taking-up-rapping thing is not a hoax.
Phoenix's antics bring to mind the stunts in "Jackass" and "Borat." He falls off stages, jumps into crowds to fight naysayers, and lures pretty women into his hotel room by questionable means. "I'm Still Here" features plenty of squirm-worthy footage: topless call girls, drugs galore, full frontal male nudity and, as rumored in the run-up to the movie's release, a defecation scene that will make you hide your eyes.
Phoenix sinks to low lows. It's still hard to sympathize with him. The key moment of "I'm Still Here" comes when the "Walk the Line" actor appears on "The Late Show" in February 2009, mumbling and grumbling his way through the interview. When Letterman makes fun of Phoenix's inability to utter coherent sentences, Phoenix attempts a third grade-level retaliation: sticking gum on Letterman's desk. Cameras show the nerves that led up to Phoenix's appearance and the breakdown that follows -- he demands that his driver stop the car so he can go cry in the bushes of Central Park, whimpering about how everyone thinks he's a joke.
But even if Phoenix is a totally baseless individual, even if the film is not 100-percent documentary, there's something redeemable about "I'm Still Here." It paints the picture of the fame monster that drags down people who have (or had) talent but no grounding in reality -- a beast that some might argue dominates the better part of Hollywood. The "is this guy for real?!" factor makes the movie riveting. Phoenix's unpredictable tantrums make him as watchable as he is loathsome. Considering the amount of attention he's gotten in the wake of "I'm Still Here," it's clear some are still interested in tuning into Phoenix's story.