Film Review: JOKER

Film Poster: JOKER

Film Poster: “Joker”

Brilliant and astonishing. See Joker and there is no need to see any other movie in 2019.

Joker is a brave and daring film. Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck/Joker creates a fully realized unique character. The screenplay by director Todd Phillips and Scott Silver gives the arch villain of DC’s comic books a riveting, highly complex psychological profile. His childhood is not presented as an excuse or a sympathy grab. It’s message is stronger than that. The structure is clever and surprising, but it is Phoenix’s complete transformation that mesmerizes. Sometimes, but not with stars of Phoenix’s magnitude, a strong director (and editor) can craft an actor’s performance. In Joker, we see Phoenix in total command of expressing the inner life of Arthur. His movements could not have been choreographed, it is his unwavering instinct driving his portrayal.

There are scenes of Arthur bringing to life the complex essence of his inner self. He’s alone and moving his body – the movements are not feminized but primal, like a pansexual Hindu deity. It is as if the liquidity of his body was finally freed to express itself. You will see it and understand how deeply Phoenix inhabits this character. This is not the kind of performance that is constructed in a screenplay.

The camera is always on Phoenix’s face. Phillips doesn’t give Phoenix many props to distract you from seeing and feeling the subtle range of emotions crossing over his face. It’s not words or scenes with others that informs us about Arthur. It’s the way Phoenix uses his body to explain himself.

The only way to convincingly act alongside Phoenix is to surrender to the belief that he is Arthur.

Phillips lets the camera run as long as Phoenix needs to become Joker.

Film Image: JOKER

Film Image: JOKER

The story is brilliant. It takes what you know about the Batman hagiography and twists it. The hallowed image of the Bruce family is corrupted – who okayed this at DC Comics?  The comical portrayal of the Joker, the buffoon madman with the exaggerated smile, is not here. Joker’s life is crafted out of squalor. Arthur has an empty life, a faceless presence, and severe mental and emotional problems. Following  real-life – unlike the fantasy world of Tony Stark – the path from nobody Arthur to Joker is built on society’s cruelty.

What makes a super villain of comic books? Usually it is a man with boundless money and an overwhelming need to satisfy a megalomaniacal ego. I have never heard of a villain who is dirt-poor, living on government assistance and with quirky facial expressions, becoming a driving force of social injustice who disrupts society and causes a movement that requires a superhero’s intervention. No comic book villain ever explains himself thusly: “I had a wonderful childhood. I just like killing people. It’s a calling.” The life experiences that creates a villain is never explained. Never before has a villain been given a story that encompasses the tragedy that formed his character.

Gotham City is a decaying city, one step away from the current situation plaguing San Francisco – human feces on the sidewalks has made the rich city one big open toilet. Nothing can stop it. There is no law against it and no one seems to be caught in the act. There does not seem to be an adjacent toilet paper problem.

Gotham, like New York City, is home to the fabulously wealthy and the unwashed masses. Arthur lives with his sick mother Penny (Frances Conroy). He works as a clown and cares for Penny, who needs feeding and bathing. Their one pleasure is watching a late night talk show, Live With Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro). Like so many people dreaming of starring on a reality show or being a guest on the 3rd hour of the Today Show, Arthur rehearses the banter he will have with Murray. Then, during a show Arthur attends, Murray plucks him from the audience and Arthur has a real-to-him moment with Murray. Arthur, who has always been told by his mother “to smile” begins to prepare a career as a stand-up comedian.

Perhaps the medicines are to blame for Arthur’s compulsive laughing and distorted bodily movements, so when he does approach an audience at open-mic night at a comedy club, he can only deliver his awkward contortions and dissociative laughter.

Arthur’s performance at the comedy club is played several times on Live With Murray Franklin. Murray’s mocking of Arthur is the match that lights the fire birthing Joker.

The Batman oeuvre has never explored the causes that fuels the rise of an anti-social villain. What has eaten all the joy out of  Gotham City? Dark, ugly, wet, graffiti-ravaged Gotham has cut its social services and Arthur is left without his mood-altering medicine. He’s beaten by thugs while working as a clown holding an “Everything Must Go” sign. His co-workers think he’s a freak, except Gary (Leigh Gill).

I do not know what the Academy’s criteria is for the Best Supporting Actor category, but the one scene Gill has with Phoenix, he’s terrific. It’s about not acting – Gill is living this scene.

Arthur and Penny have a unique connection to the Bruce family (and a troubling intimacy, to boot). Penny had been a housekeeper at Wayne Manor and writes to Thomas Wayne every day pleading for help. When Arthur finally opens a letter, it’s contents brings him to Wayne Manor where he meets young Bruce Wayne (Dante Pereira-Olson) and perhaps Alfred (Douglas Hodge). Arthur wants to confront Thomas Bruce with details in his mother’s
letter.

If you think Joker is set up for us to pity Arthur, screenwriters Phillips and Silver, director Phillips and Phoenix smash our sympathy for Arthur as his rage conquers his insecurities. And he does it with such nonchalance.

It’s not Arthur who creates the Joker, it is the oppressed masses.

Joker is not Best Picture material – it’s too radical a departure, even though there are some sick kids in it. But it has my votes for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Director, Best Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor.

Phillips and Phoenix have taken a comic book character and made art.

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About Victoria Alexander

Member of Las Vegas Film Critics Society: www.lvfcs.org/. Victoria Alexander lives in Las Vegas, Nevada and answers every email at victoria.alexander.lv@gmail.com. For a complete list of Victoria Alexander's movie reviews on Rotten Tomatoes go to: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/author/author-3571/ Contributing to: FilmsInReview: http://www.filmsinreview.com FilmFestivalToday: http://www.filmfestivaltoday.com Las Vegas Informer Group: LVInformer.com Member of Las Vegas Film Critics Society: www.lvfcs.org
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