Owen Gleiberman
September 16, 2010 AT 11:58 PM EDT

Image Credit: WireImage.com; Pascal Le Segretain/Getty ImagesOkay, I got fooled. I’m not going to sugarcoat my mea culpa. By the time I saw I’m Still Here, Casey Affleck’s is-it-really-truly-actually-a-documentary? about his brother-in-law Joaquin Phoenix’s scuzzy descent into drugs and narcissism and startlingly awful hip-hop lyrics, the rumors that the whole thing was a hoax had been swirling around — and, in fact, gaining traction — for more than a year, ever since Phoenix’s infamous appearance on Late Show With David Letterman. I was more than ready to jump on the hoax bandwagon myself, except that the movie I saw looked and felt real to me, which is why I said so in my review.

Now Affleck, in an interview granted to Michael Cieply of The New York Times, has revealed that, yes, the whole thing really was a great big hoax. My first reaction is: Wow, that really was a great performance. Ten times better than his inspired work in Walk the Line. Yet even as I wipe the critical egg off my face, I want to seize the opportunity to say why I thought the hoax rumor was, in fact, the real concoction.

Where did the rumor originally come from? A member of Phoenix’s entourage whose name couldn’t be revealed. That mystery whistle-blower first spilled the beans to Christine Spines of EW, who is interviewed in the film. But just as millions of people re-ran the Phoenix/Letterman clip on YouTube and thought that they smelled a rat, the hoax rumor, to me, had the distinct ring of a story planted by a publicist for the purposes of damage control. And, in a funny way, it still does — even as Casey Affleck comes clean. In fact, the hoax confirmation now takes on the aspect of an entertainment-industrial-complex conspiracy theory, all built around the fact that I’m Still Here was a shocking bomb at the box office last weekend, grossing a per-screen average of barely over $5,000 on just 20 screens. Could damage control + intriguing redefinition of the movie = megahype?

You decide. But as a critic who can admit (as any critic should) when he’s wrong, I want to conclude my mea culpa in the playful what’s real? spirit of I’m Still Here by officially launching a rumor of my own: I don’t think that the hoax has ended. Because I think that Casey Affleck’s it-was-all-a-hoax interview with The New York Times is the real hoax. I really, truly believe that. Unless, of course, I’m just making it up.

So do Casey Affleck’s recent statements increase your desire to see I’m Still Here? Or neutralize it down to zero?

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