So not everybody is in on the hoax. At my local Community Center Appalachian gym the other day, the woman next to me on the elliptical was approached by a friend describing the “very sad” film she’d seen at our local art house theatre – I’M NOT THERE. “It’s terrible,” she said. “You see this innocent young boy at the beginning of the film [hoax], and then by the end, after all these drugs and alcohol and fame, you see what he’s become [hoax].” It turns out that it’s a pretty amazing feat. You leave the theatre really zeroing in on particular moments …. How did they do that? Casey Affleck and Joaquin Phoenix basically duped the media and used its venues and players as their sets and extras, reflecting on contemporary celebrity and the reporters who work there. But hoax is too strong (it’s just fun to say). It’s pure performance. Phoenix is playing “Himself,” says the credits, but he’s really not. He’s playing a desperate celebrity – maybe a version of himself, but a pretty spectacular one — who attacks strangers, shreds his ‘friends’ to ribbons with profanity rants and barfs violently into toilets. He was really barfing, wasn’t he? He lived this character in the moment to moment nonfiction landscape of reality, making the film the most hybrid of hybrids to come along in a good while, and I don’t mean a Prius. (That’s doc plus fiction, good sirs.)

The piece relies on the dupe. Assistants and the service class were vulnerable (although I thought I Phoenix’s assistant Nicole with a producer credit; it’s not on imdb), and didn’t get a “Very Special Thanks” like the truly baffled Ben Stiller and Sean P Diddy Combs. (If they knew, they delivered very good performances.) It’s a pretty interesting ride. Does it hold together as a movie? Not entirely. But as a roiling experiment, both repulsive and hilarious? Ding ding ding ding (that means yes).

Letterman was at the center – and as Phoenix’s February 2009 visit was the apex of the film (which the filmmakers apparently “fair used” by claiming that they should be able to use the television material as it is critical to the nonfiction story), which makes his recent visit back to Letterman’s couch even more interesting.

A New York Times piece on Affleck and his admission that the film may have needed more of a ‘wink’ at the audience is also good reading.