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Descent-Ascent To Comic Book Hell: A Review Of 'Joker'

Joaquin Phoenix delivers one of the most riveting, disturbing performances of the year; and Todd Phillip’s Joker transforms the comic-book super-villain film into stark, existential psychodrama

If you leave the theater after watching Todd Phillip’s Joker and keep hearing the different, maniacal laughs of Joaquin Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck in the back of your mind, don’t be surprised. That’s how haunted you will be by this very disturbing portrayal of Joker. While it does salute the Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger versions, this one is distinctly all Joaquin, and it’s definitely one for the ages. I think we can safely predict this will figure heavily in the best actor race come the 2020 film awards season.

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Joaquin Phoenix as the Joker | Warner Bros.

A standalone entry to the DC canon of films, Joker chronicles the descent/ascent of one Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) from perpetually persecuted, down-on-his-heels, pathetic geek clown, to smug, conceited, super-villain. And the wonderful thing is how Joaquin takes us on this painstaking journey/arc of angst, rejection, humiliation, pathos, violence, and hubris. Like some road accident happening in front of us, he dares us to drive by when we know very well about people eye-balling accidents, and stopping to ogle. It’s just like that here with Joaquin and his Joker, we’re transfixed and can’t stop gazing. No matter how embarrassing, how painful, how visceral, how dehumanizing—we are hostages to this brilliant portrayal. 

It’s reported that Phoenix lost over fifty pounds to assume this role, and it shows. He twists and contorts his body to unnatural degrees and configurations. He’s light as a feather when he prances and dances in wild abandon, or as part of Joker’s braggadocio. It may not be as much weight loss as Christian Bale underwent for The Machinist; but like Bale, Phoenix puts his body on the line in his commitment for producing a unique take on his Joker. 

The interconnection to the greater DC universe, especially Batman, is evident throughout the film. There’s the presence of Thomas Wayne, and his son Bruce. And even Arthur’s sickly mother (Frances Conroy) has her own back story that links Arthur to the Wayne fortune. And there’s Gotham itself. In a reverential nod to a film that Phillips has said he’s loved, it’s New York pre-Times Square clean-up. In other words, it’s the New York of Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. The other Scorsese film referenced in Joker, is Scorsese’s often maligned King of Comedy (which is one of my personal favorites for being such a black comedy). The cinematography of Lawrence Sher brings out this squalid, gritty, urban cesspool that was Taxi Driver’s world.

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Joaquin Phoenix as Joker, with a mural of Robert de Niro as Murray Franklin | Warner Bros.

In what must be a case of serendipitous casting, Robert de Niro who was Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, and Rupert Pupkin in King of Comedy, is cast here in Joker as Murray Franklin the Johnny Carson-type late night TV host who Arthur idolizes. There’s not that much on-screen time for de Niro, but it’s great to watch him doing his own version of likable, egotistical bastard.

For those in the dark about director Todd Phillips’ provenance, he basically owns the Hangover film franchise: producing, writing, and directing. As you can surmise, that means a lot of moolah, but not much respect from the critics and serious filmmakers. But with Joker having swept the Golden Lion at this year’s Venice Film Festival, Phillips is now playing a different kind of game. It’ll be interesting to see if Joker can also rack up nominations in the Best Picture and Best Director categories. 

Without a doubt, Joaquin Phoenix will be in the running for best actor; and should pick up the win here and there. His performance carries this film when I wished for more plot twists, or narrative development. I understand Phillips allowed Phoenix to improvise, as Phillips has often done with the actors of his comedy films; and perhaps overly enamored with the results, he’s retained a lot of these scenes in the final cut. 

But yes, this is a star turn for Joaquin Phoenix, and everything else in the film merely orbits around his mesmerizing portrayal.

Joker will be out in theaters nationwide on October 4.

Early Front-running For The Film Awards Season


Early Front-running For The Film Awards Season