“Joker” — a film review by Gary Chew
Upfront … Joker is no joke! I say that despite the fact Todd Phillips’ latest picture is totally derivative of the long-running action/hero franchise known as Batman. Clearly, the character named by the title is the most vicious villain Batman (aka Bruce Wayne) ever confronted. Phillips and Scott Silver have made a peripheral move on familiar ink-heavy pulp fiction, pulling their script straight out and into awesome realism that plays more relevantly than some people would like to think about.
It’s difficult for me to describe how magnificent Joaquin Phoenix is playing Arthur Fleck (aka Joker), a wannabe stand up comic who makes a meager living as a “sign-carrying” costumed-clown on the busy streets of Gotham (New York City). Arthur also cares for his shut-in mother (Frances Conroy) in their fleabag flat; just the two of them: he, the good son, always considerate of what she requires. Conroy remains clear in my mind all these years after playing the matriarch of the Fisher family in HBO’s Six Feet Under. She’s nigh on to the pick of perfection as Arthur’s mom.
To say Arthur is in deep mental distress would be the nice way to described the hero of this shattering and artful piece of cinema. When he breaks down with laughter, as he often does, Arthur is feeling unbelievably bad, his mind spinning with negative thoughts. He tends to draw confrontational people who are prone to physically abusing others. Arthur, somehow, is an unfortunate target. Within him, his anger builds and builds.
After getting a curbside savaging, Arthur is given a pistol by one of his co-working clowns. The guys at the clown shop take notice that he needs some personal protection from creepy street kids. (This scene made me shudder in my seat; I could see where this was going. You will too.)
Arthur is a fan of a famous late night TV talk show host. The perfect but fictitious name for that guy is Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro). Visions of Travis Bickle and Rupert Pupkin danced in my head. As an enraptured audience member at one of Franklin’s network shows, Arthur is invited to stand up and and have an on camera chat with Murray; everybody in the theater and the nation watches. Arthur gets laudatory attention … and so comes a power surge.
Back at Arthur’s fleabag apartment and down the hall lives a beautiful African-American woman called Sophie (Zazie Beetz). Uncharacteristically, the couple pairs up and starts dating. This is the only part of the film that doesn’t ring much truth, even though Sophie understands the down ‘n’ out-ness Arthur feels. She quietly signals him that suicide is not an unthinkable act. Other than this plot point, Sophie doesn’t need to be in the script. On the other hand, Zazie Beetz has big stuff on her horizon, like being cast in the upcoming Seberg starring Kristen Stewart, and Lucy in the Sky with Natalie Portman.
Joker packs more punch than Lumet/Chayefsky’s Network and Kubrick/King’s The Shining. Do I make myself clear? And musically, Joker has two — count ’em — two songs sung by Sinatra. Frank sings familiar lyrics that are to the film’s point, especially the one as the credits close. You wont feel the need to rush right out anyway, having just seen Joker.
Yes, this is a real movie. It’s also high on the art chart. Some films can be artful, even excellent, but what the film has for its message defines whether it is art or one of high art. Todd Phillips has made high art cinema here. The message is extremely serious. This picture is not for your entertainment. It does have those moments, though: genuine out-loud laughing (unlike Arthur’s) can be had.
Joaquin Phoenix has an uncanny knack for selecting extraordinary scripts. One film Phoenix did never got a song sung for it … or him. Did you see The Immigrant? And please note what else he’s done. Mr. Phoenix, it’s time for your Oscar.