[TIFF Review] ‘JOKER’ lives up to the hype, delivers a knock-out Joaquin Phoenix performance and film

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James Clay // Film Critic

JOKER

Rated R, 122 minutes.
Director: Todd Phillips
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Zazie Beets, Robert De Niro and Marc Maron

TORONTO – At this point, avoiding the talk around Todd Phillips’ film JOKER is next to impossible. The film’s cynical outlook has been divisive among those who have seen the film, which stars Joaquin Phoenix as the deranged DC supervillain. At this moment in pop culture, superhero movies are at full-market saturation. They have been able to break free of the template and play in the genre while existing in their own universe.

With this success of the R-rated films LOGAN and DEADPOOL, Warner Bros. figured it was time to shoot their shot at a transgressive blockbuster. JOKER only grazes the Batman lore, merely taking inspiration to create a unique portrait.

The film is bound to inspire the wrong type of crowd. Some will see the origin story of the clowned price as a rallying cry for the oppressed and abandoned. But Phillips is holding up a mirror to our society with a cautionary tale. It looks for human decency rather than anarchic wish fulfillment.

Many reveals in the story are inherently simple throwbacks to the grit of Martin Scorsese’s (who serves as executive producer) vision of 1970s New York. Phillips owes a lot to the New Hollywood aesthetic and Christopher Nolan’s DARK KNIGHT trilogy with his slow-burn psychodrama that distracts from his own vision. JOKER dances a high wire act. It validates its existence – one that finds its message of fear and abuse. It’s not a pretty sight to see, but it sure is intriguing.

Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) works for a clown dispensary. He takes odd jobs that require him to spin signs and dance for sick children. Phoenix’s arc plays a gentle naivety before he goes into full-blown deranged. The guy takes beatings on the street more often than he collects a solid paycheck. He keeps a notebook full of his thoughts – or as he calls it, his “joke book.” It’s his way of coping, so he can work the mic at a comedy club.

The screenplay by Phillips and Scott Silver draws Arthur’s routine like he’s Andy Kaufman dipped in formaldehyde. Their brand of anti humor calls back to the Rick Alverson collaboration, THE COMEDY, about an antisocial aging hipster wandering the streets of New York. It’s morose and played completely straight. You are not really sure if you should be laughing, or if Phillips will diffuse the awkward situation.

Arthur is stuck living with his mother, Penny (Frances Conroy); then again, Arthur isn’t capable of staying anywhere else without being a danger to himself. The world is cruel, but he certainly doesn’t make things easier on himself, laughing into oblivion in the most inappropriate moments. Respite from his psychosis comes in the form of his fandom for Gotham late night host Murray Franklin (Robert DeNiro), whose schticky lounge act is perfect fodder to play against Arthur’s nihilism. DeNiro sporting a set of pearly veneers and plaid suits goes hand in hand with his role as crazed fanatic Rupert Pupkin in THE KING OF COMEDY.

Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck in ‘JOKER.’ Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.

Arthur just seems to be one of those guys who sit on park benches and talks to pigeons. It’s not until his coworker, Randal (Glenn Fleshler, who joins the ranks of Gotham criminals in note-perfect casting), gives him a snub-nose pistol do his thoughts start to become a reality. He latches onto his neighbor, Sophie (Zazie Beats), and her daughter, obsessing over her every move. She’s underdeveloped, but that’s kind of the point. Arthur places his own expectations on Sophie, working as a comment on the male gaze. This is the type stuff that will have people up in arms, but Phillips wants it that way.

Set to a hazy blue color pallet by Lawrence Sher (GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS), Gotham is a waste land for its citizens, who are suffering day in and day out in a purgatory that’s just biding time from one demoralizing life event to the next. Sher’s camera work is cold and distant, while Phillips’ approach is up close and personal.

For a film with an inevitable conclusion, there is a spontaneity to JOKER that exists in a space in Arthur’s mind, where he believes anything can happen. His depiction is a series of white knuckles events. We have known that Phoenix can play this level of crazy, and he finds interesting ticks that foreshadows what card he’s going to play next. However, as brilliant as Phoenix is, there have been iterations of this characterization in his career, such as his role as a maritime pervert in Paul Thomas Anderson’s THE MASTER.

JOKER will have people talking; that’s what the film is chasing. As weird as it may seem, it even asks us to be kinder to those in need. It’s about a feeling of dread, impatience, and alienation that breeds fear for weirdos on the street. This isn’t a grand masterpiece of cinema, but Phillips’ film is a profound piece of blockbuster filmmaking. There are much more shocking films that just haven’t received this type of media attention. I challenge you to watch Yorgos Lanthimos’ DOGTOOTH, or Lars Von Trier’s ANTICHRIST; but then again, maybe it would be dangerous for these pieces of media to breakthrough to the mainstream. Who’s to say? Certainly not me.

It will be an ongoing battle to see where this film will fall. It’s a story that plays with dualities. Some viewers will either be around long enough to be a warning for the insanity around us or be a part of a special group of morons online (probably the same group who threatened Rian Johnson) and will weaponize Arthur’s story. Either way, this movie exists. And as cheesy as it sounds, it belongs to us now. It is our job to know how to utilize it for the greater good.

Grade: A-

JOKER premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. An encore screening will be held on September 13. Visit tiff.net for more information. Warner Bros. Pictures will release the film nationwide on October 4.