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Joker Movie Review

Joker (2019) movie poster Joker

Theatrical Release: October 4, 2019 / Running Time: 124 Minutes / Rating: R

Director: Todd Phillips / Writers: Todd Phillips, Scott Silver

Cast: Joaquin Phoenix (Arthur Fleck/Joker), Robert De Niro (Murray Franklin), Zazie Beetz (Sophie Dumond), Frances Conroy (Penny Fleck), Brett Cullen (Thomas Wayne), Shea Whigham (Detective Burke), Bill Camp (Detective Garrity), Glenn Fleshler (Randall), Leigh Gill (Gary), Josh Pais (Hoyt Vaughn), Rocco Luna (GiGi Dumond), Marc Maron (Gene Ufland), Sondra James (Dr. Sally), Murphy Guyer (Barry O'Donnell), Douglas Hodge (Alfred Pennyworth), Dante Pereira-Olson (Bruce Wayne), Carrie Louise Putrello (Martha Wayne), Sharon Washington (Social Worker), Hannah Gross (Young Penny), Frank Wood (Dr. Stoner), Brian Tyree Henry (Carl - Arkham Clerk)


After Heath Ledger poured everything he had into The Dark Knight and died six months before that landmark movie opened, the Joker has seemed like an untouchable part of Batman's universe as far as live-action cinema goes. Then, eight years later, the character featured in Suicide Squad, DC's commercially successful but critically derided answer to Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy. Jared Leto made for exciting casting news,
but his performance was not one of the few celebrated aspects of that late summer hit. Now, whhle DC prepares to relaunch Batman (now Robert Pattinson) following the fallout of Justice League's failings, the by far most iconic villain in what still stands as DC's most beloved franchise returns to the big screen like never before in Joker.

In this age of cinematic universes, Todd Phillips' new film is the most daring thing it can be: a bold, original, decidedly standalone supervillain origin film. It is rated R and in the title role stars Joaquin Phoenix, one of the few capital-A actors you've accepted as being too good to make a standard superhero movie. Phoenix came close to playing Doctor Strange for Marvel, but it's tough to imagine him finding ongoing satisfaction in the modest follow-up challenges of Benedict Cumberbatch's most lucrative film role. Joker, on the other hand, gives Phoenix the opportunity to put his own personal imprint on one of cinema's legendary characters in what is sure to be one of the most-seen movies of the year and probably no hard commitment to sequels and related DC Universe projects. The numbers will likely be too big for Phillips, Phoenix, and Warner Bros. to ignore, but for now let us put out of mind any thoughts of diminishing creative returns and appreciate the brilliance of Joker.

Joaquin Phoenix commands the screen as increasingly lonesome Gotham City clown and aspiring comedian Arthur Fleck in Todd Phillips' "Joker."

There is a way to make a Joker movie resembling Marvel's tried and true fare. We need look no further than Venom, which opened a year ago this week, for a villain-centric movie that impressed nobody and still made a killing. Fortunately, though you might not expect it from a director whose career took off with Road Trip and Old School, Phillips approaches this domain with intentions more artistic than commercial. He has made one of the darkest and most subversive mainstream films of recent times, drawing inspiration not from Marvel's formulas but from the early collaborations of Robert De Niro and director Martin Scorsese.

The clearest and most direct influence on Joker, which Phillips also wrote with Scott Silver (The Fighter, 8 Mile), is The King of Comedy, Scorsese's ahead-of-its-time 1983 satire starring De Niro as an unstable stand-up aspiring to become a talk show host. Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) bears more than a passing thematic resemblance to King's antihero Rupert Pupkin. Living in squalor in pre-Giuliani Gotham City, Arthur takes care of his bedridden mother (Frances Conroy), barely making ends meet as a for-hire clown who gets bullied by kids for doing little more than spinning a clearance sale sign on a sidewalk. After a newly-acquired gun falls out of his pocket while he's performing for a children's hospital ward, Arthur gets fired.

That is but the latest thing causing Arthur distress. His mother has been writing letters regularly to her former employer, potential mayoral candidate Thomas Wayne (yes, Bruce's father), to no response. Discovering the contents of those unanswered letters shakes Arthur to his core. Meanwhile, the city is cutting down social services funding, which means his regular counseling sessions will be coming to an abrupt end, not that they were much help. And the notebook on which he hopes to launch his own stand-up career seems like a pretty rocky foundation.

Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) upsets fellow Gotham City bus riders with his medical condition of uncontrollable, inexplicable laughter.

We've gotten heroes' origin stories too many times to count. Again and again, we've seen the dark places that drive Batman, Spider-Man, et al. to costumed vigilantism. Typically, though, villains have to settle for a monologue or a brief flashback to demonstrate how their propensity for evil emerged.
Joker gets to spend two full hours on that idea and it makes for a rich and riveting character study with a master like Phoenix fully committing to the role. Phillips' growth as a filmmaker has been plain and rewarding to see, as he has developed style and flair on stealthily substantive comedies like The Hangover and War Dogs. He doesn't even strive for laughs here, letting them flow naturally out of moments of tension as the cracks form and expand in Fleck's disarmingly skeletal body. Phoenix lost 52 pounds to play this role and that might seem unnecessary given that the character has never been associated with thinness. But it grants him an otherworldly physicality that colors the performance, comparable to his weight loss on The Master and Christian Bale's disconcerting slimdowns.

Phoenix has often wowed critics and cineastes with his performances for the likes of Paul Thomas Anderson and Spike Jonze. He has to work even harder to be taken seriously here given the ubiquity and limitations of mainstream comic book fare. But he shatters through any perceived constraints. If Ledger had lived, we could have a solid debate about the best comic book villain performance in cinema history. Even in the post-Ledger world, it's hard to imagine Phoenix's epic turn gets marginalized out of awards races the way that every superhero movie cast member besides Ledger's posthumous Oscar winner has. It's worth noting that Phoenix has never won an Oscar and in fact only been nominated three times (Supporting for Gladiator and Lead for Walk the Line and The Master). A very realistic scenario would be for him to be the only target of awards attention on behalf of the film, but there is folly to that because Joker is more than just a great performance. It's a great film.

Thinkpieces have been popping up online since before the film even premiered to fanfare at the Venice International Film Festival. There are fears that the movie will inspire copycat acts of violence, some of it born out of the fact that a midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises in 2012 became the site of a deadly attack and mass shootings have continued to be a news cycle fixture since then. Security at my advance screening of the film was the tightest I've ever encountered. Preemptively linking the film to mass shootings and the so-called "incel" movement do the film a disservice. At the same time, that journalists can even make such leaps is a testament to Joker being grounded in reality. Wealth inequality exists and so do feelings of being marginalized by society. Joker does not celebrate its character's actions or the public response they inspire. It merely seeks to understand the pain that so often begets other pain. Christopher Nolan's last Dark Knight movie inspired thinkpieces about the Occupy movement that it seemed well-timed to, plenty of them misguided. The real takeaway is that it is possible, and often even preferable, for a big mainstream studio movie not to settle for pure escapism. (Although with a production budget of just $55 million, Joker isn't so big in the grand scheme of things.)

Should you have any concerns about Phillips having the audacity to borrow from the great Scorsese, Robert De Niro plays Murray Franklin, a talk show host akin to Jerry Lewis' King of Comedy character. De Niro's presence in the same awards season he's headlining Scorsese's The Irishman functions as a meaningful seal of approval, much like his cameo in David O. Russell's Goodfellas-esque American Hustle did. As an added bonus, De Niro is as magnetic and charismatic as he's been in ages, which is not something you expect from a DC movie from the director of Starsky & Hutch.

Related Reviews:
Directed by Todd Phillips: War Dogs The Hangover The Hangover Part II The Hangover Part III Road Trip Due Date
The Dark Knight Rises Suicide Squad Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice Shazam!
Joaquin Phoenix: You Were Never Really Here The Master Her Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot The Immigrant Irrational Man
Robert De Niro: Taxi Driver American Hustle | Zazie Beetz: Deadpool 2 | Written by Scott Silver: The Fighter

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Reviewed October 2, 2019.

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