By Josh Rottenberg
Updated June 02, 2011 at 07:49 PM EDT
Jason Merritt/FilmMagic

You’d think director James Gray would be extremely wary of teaming up with Joaquin Phoenix again, given what happened with their last outing together, 2009’s Two Lovers. As you might remember (who could forget?), the publicity campaign for that small indie drama wound up being overshadowed and, many felt, completely sabotaged by the bizarre spectacle of Phoenix’s apparent public meltdown and much-ridiculed reinvention as a bearded, mumbling, stumbling wannabe rapper. At the time of Two Lovers‘ release, Gray insisted to EW that he was as baffled as everyone else by Phoenix’s talk of quitting acting and rebooting his career as a hip-hop artist: ”I hope he’s not serious. I think he might be,” he said. ”I’m hoping that his batteries get recharged and he gets the desire to act again. Sean Penn has announced he’s retiring about 30,000 times. So who knows?” When it all turned out to be a big hoax, culminating in last year’s pseudo-documentary I’m Still Here, you’d have assumed Gray would be the last one to find the whole thing amusing. Indeed, there were rumors that the two, who had earlier worked together on the films The Yards and We Own the Night, had a falling out in the wake of Two Lovers.

Yet, after all that, Gray is now preparing to embark on his fourth film with Phoenix, a gritty drama called Low Life. As first reported by Deadline, Phoenix will play a sleazy pimp who preys on a Polish immigrant (Marion Cotillard) and lures her into a life of prostitution. So what’s the deal? Is Gray just a really forgiving soul? Is he a glutton for punishment? Neither, in fact. The truth is, following the release of I’m Still Here, its director, Casey Affleck, revealed that Gray was in on the joke from the start and willing to play along to bring attention to Two Lovers. “James just wanted people to see his movie,” Affleck told Roger Ebert in an interview. “Magnolia released that as well as my movie and I don’t think a whole lot of people would have seen it if Joaquin didn’t have a beard and hadn’t told people he was retiring. But maybe I’m wrong. James also was told what was going on.”

So there you have it. James Gray and Joaquin Phoenix are still cinematic BFFs, no hard feelings. And while Phoenix clearly has no future as a rapper, Gray just might have some potential as an actor. He certainly fooled us.

Read more:

Joaquin Phoenix may head back to the big screen as someone other than ‘himself.’

Joaquin Phoenix and David Letterman, round 2: Fresh put-ons, insults, and apologies

Casey Affleck admits his Joaquin Phoenix documentary wasn’t real: Are you at all surprised?