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This ‘Joker’ is wild

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Hollywood has spent the past decade-plus showing us that superheroes are more than capable of carrying a movie. We’ve seen all manner of comic book fare, from the biggies like Marvel and DC to more independent offerings. Superheroes are movie stars.

But what about supervillains?

With few exceptions, we haven’t seen the bad guys in the lead in these films. There’s “Suicide Squad” and … what? Now, one could argue that the single greatest performance in a superhero film was Heath Ledger as the Joker in “The Dark Knight,” but he wasn’t the star – not really.

And now, we’re getting yet another iteration of that character, only this time, it’s his story. “Joker,” directed by Todd Phillips from a script co-written by Phillips and Scott Silver, stars Joaquim Phoenix as the titular criminal. For the first time, a singular bad guy got the chance to carry a film all by his lonesome. There are no heroes here, no other villains – just Joker.

The result is a film that is unapologetically visceral and unwavering in its brutality. It paints a bleak portrait of the world and the people who live in it, using its titular character as a mirror to force society to look itself in the warts-and-all face. It is repugnant and fascinating in equal regard, driven by an absolutely mesmerizing and transformative performance by Phoenix. It is aggressive in its unpleasantness, doubling and tripling down on its unreliability as it forces us to follow along on a journey where the line between reality and delusion is indelibly blurred.

Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) is the kind of guy who’s going nowhere. He’s living in Gotham City, sharing an apartment with his ailing mother Penny (Frances Conroy, TV’s “American Horror Story”). Arthur is unwell, afflicted with a condition that causes him to laugh uncontrollably at inappropriate times; he’s taking numerous medications and meeting regularly with a city-provided social worker following his release from a mental hospital.

Arthur’s dream is to make people laugh. He scribbles attempts at jokes in his journal. He and his mother religiously watch comic and late-night TV host Murray Franklin (Robert DeNiro, “The Irishman”); Arthur dreams of becoming a stand-up comic, but for now, he works as a party clown. He is the lowest of the low, the social equivalent of the garbage piling up on the street as the city suffers through a sanitation strike.

But an incident on the subway one night – an incident that leaves three men dead – leads to Arthur discovering how it feels to be the one wielding the stick rather than engaging in the Sisyphean chase for the carrot. He feels what it is like to be the one in control, the one who has the power. It’s a feeling that he likes, a feeling that empowers him in a way nothing ever has.

He starts a budding romance with one of the neighbors, a woman named Sophie (Zazie Beetz, “High Flying Bird”). He gets up the guts to take the stage at an open mic night, and even though his condition presents some obstacles, he pushes through. Things start to feel like they might be turning around.

But there are secrets. And secrets within secrets. Secrets that involve billionaire and mayoral candidate Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen, TV’s “True Detective”). Secrets that involve the truth about who Arthur is. Secrets about what’s real … and what isn’t.

And as the downtrodden of Gotham are driven to rise up against the elite whose boots rest on their necks, they rally around the notion of this mystery man – this clown – who refuses to allow the upper echelons of society to hold him down any longer.

You can’t talk about “Joker” without talking about Martin Scorsese, whose influences are all over this film. One could argue – and many are – that the film is essentially “Taxi Driver” in greasepaint, with a liberal dollop of “The King of Comedy” on top. The line between homage and pastiche is a blurry one, rendered all the blurrier by things like the presence of DeNiro.

That said, it’s certainly a well-executed film. There’s a distinct aesthetic to “Joker” that lends itself well to this kind of period piece. There’s a bleariness to it, as though everything and everyone (with a few deliberate exceptions) is covered in a thin layer of grime. And the narrative instability is engaging as hell; ordinarily, the muddiness would detract from the proceedings, but due to the nature of the story and of the character, the lack of clarity is a perfect fit.

Still, the biggest reason that “Joker” works – perhaps the ONLY reason – is the performance from Joaquim Phoenix. His Arthur Fleck is a twisted mass of twitches and tics, thoroughly uncomfortable in his own skin. There’s a jaggedness to him. Physically, he’s all angles and edges, thanks to a 50-plus pound weight loss for the role; he captures the nervous energy of the unstable perfectly. Emotionally, his every word, every glance, presents a man seemingly on the verge of snapping. He is our sole window into this world – a cracked, utterly unreliable window. We see it all through his eyes – eyes that we can’t necessarily trust to see what’s really there. It is a tour de force performance, one whose impact – whether you like the movie or hate it – is difficult to deny.

The supporting cast does strong work. Conroy has always had a real gift for portraying the quietly damaged; she gets to utilize that gift fully here. Beetz holds her own in a handful of scenes alongside the Phoenix whirlwind (her last scene is particularly good). Cullen is maybe our most underrated “rich jerk” actor; he hits all the right notes. And DeNiro is fantastic as Murray Franklin – no surprise there. He’s the perfect choice here, even with the whiff of stunt casting.

“Joker” offers an unexpected turn for the comic book movie genre. It has its issues – at times, the film seems like it has something to say, but is unclear on how to say it; the Scorsese influences should probably be more subtextual and less textual – but it’s hard to argue against the incandescence of Phoenix’s performance. An intense, impactful cinematic experience.

Send in the clowns.

[4.5 out of 5]

Last modified on Tuesday, 08 October 2019 10:32

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