By Ken Tucker
Updated September 23, 2010 at 04:29 AM EDT

The Late Show

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Joaquin Phoenix returned to Late Show With David Letterman on Wednesday night for the first time since his February 2009 appearance. Last night, Letterman described Phoenix as “the dope in the beard” and “a side of beef in a suit.”

This time around, Phoenix was clean-shaven and trim in a sleek gray suit. “Whattaya got to say for yourself?” said Letterman in a mock-accusatory tone. Then he got down to it:

“Now, did I know anything about this?” he asked, referring to his part in the filming of the Casey Affleck-directed hoax-documentary I’m Still Here. Phoenix said, “No.” Letterman: “Yeah. Was there a script that you and I were working with?” “No,” Phoenix said. Dave smiled. “Thank you very much. I was not part of it, was I?”

But then Phoenix took the tale in a different direction. “Yeah, but, I mean, I think that you’ve interviewed many, many people and I assumed that you would know the difference between a character and a real person.” So the new positions of these two are, Dave wants you to think he knew “somethin’ ain’t right” but he didn’t know it was a put-on for a movie project, and Joaquin wants you to know he assumed Dave did know it was a put-on, because Dave is such a pro, he can sniff out a phony a mile away.

“But I apologize,” said Phoenix. “I hope I didn’t offend you in any way.” “Oh, no, no, no, I was not offended,” said Letterman. ” I’m telling you, it was so much fun. It was batting practice, you know what I mean? Every one of them was a dinger.” Ah, so Dave did know he was being tossed softballs, as one of his writers, Bill Scheft, has said. It’s just that they didn’t have a script.

Gee, I think we witnessed two guys hustling each other, and their audiences.

Phoenix drifted into snooze-ville when he said he and Affleck had wanted to make a movie that “explored celebrity and the media and people who consume celebrity.” He said he’d gotten the idea from “watching a lot of reality shows. I was amazed people believed them… The acting was terrible.” Joaquin, let me introduce you to Media Studies 101: Reality TV is not real.

Letterman cut through all this by saying all he cared about was that “I had been made a fool of. Do I come off like a jerk?” He said Phoenix owed him “a million dollars [from] all the promotion — we want something for that.”

“Can we talk about this privately?” said Phoenix, trying to deflect the joke.

“Yeah,” Letterman shot back. “We’ll go to one of your screenings.”

A minute later, I saw an ad for I’m Still Here, available on demand Sept. 24. So it’s no blockbuster, but this fake feud and fake make-up-and-be-pals was highly amusing, in its gleefully cynical way.

What do you think?

Follow: @kentucker

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