Friday, October 4, 2019

In Theaters: JOKER (2019)

(US/Canada - 2019)

Directed by Todd Phillips. Written by Todd Phillips and Scott Silver. Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen, Shea Whigham, Bill Camp, Marc Maron, Brian Tyree Henry, Glenn Fleshler, Leigh Gill, Josh Pais, Rocco Luna, April Grace, Sondra James, Murphy Guyer, Douglas Hodge, Dante Pereira-Olson, Sharon Washington, Chris Redd, Hannah Gross. (R, 121 mins)

After a month of thinkpieces and endless debate, praise, hand-wringing, and outrage following its premiere at the Venice International Film Festival, the revisionist origin story JOKER is, at this point, pretty much a scorching hot take that happens to be accompanied by the incidental release of a movie. Certain to provoke divisive reactions and possibly more, the film has admirable aspirations of being a loving homage to the gritty NYC of old, particularly two Martin Scorsese classics in 1976's TAXI DRIVER and 1983's THE KING OF COMEDY. It gets it right for a while, starting with the old-school 1970s Warner Bros. logo and various pop culture indicators (BLOW OUT and ZORRO, THE GAY BLADE on a theater marquee, and posters for WOLFEN, EXCALIBUR, ARTHUR, and DRAGONSLAYER) placing the setting in 1981 and, for the most part, successfully nailing the period detail. While partially indebted to the classic 1988 Alan Moore/Brian Bolland graphic novel Batman: The Killing Joke, JOKER's title character as a cackling, chain-smoking amalgam of TAXI DRIVER's Travis Bickle and THE KING OF COMEDY's Rupert Pupkin, with a bit of DEATH WISH's Paul Kersey and the infamous 1984 Bernhard Goetz NYC subway shooting, an incident reminiscent of a sequence in DEATH WISH a decade earlier.

All that aside, the whole show here is Joaquin Phoenix as the eventual title character, a mentally-disturbed clown-for-hire named Arthur Fleck, who lives in a rundown Gotham tenement with his gravely ill mother Penny (Frances Conroy) and is generally treated like a punching bag by the entire world. On seven different medications that aren't helping, and often making others uncomfortable with a neurological, Tourette's-like condition that causes screeching laughter at inappropriate moments, Arthur is doomed to be a loner ("God's lonely man," as Travis Bickle might say), but he has visions of getting organizized and being a stand-up comedian ("Don't you have to be funny for that?" his mother asks). But bad luck follows Arthur like a fly on shit: he's rolled by a group of teens who viciously beat him and steal a sign he was waving on a job, and his boss threatens to take the cost of the sign out of his paycheck; he's given a gun by co-worker Randall (Glenn Fleshler), only to have it fall out of his pants while entertaining some kids in a children's hospital, after which Randall throws him under the bus and gets him fired; and that same day, he's taunted again on the way home by three Wall Street douchebags who start beating him, causing Arthur to snap, shooting and killing all three of them in an act of self-defense that turns into cold-blooded murder. All the while, a class war is brewing in the garbage-strewn streets of Gotham, with the city's downtrodden growing tired of the gutting of social services ("How do I get my medication?" Arthur asks his social worker when she says her department's funding has been cut and she's being let go) and of being overlooked by the city's wealthy movers and shakers, represented by billionaire Wayne Enterprises CEO Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), who's just announced a mayoral run because he's "the only one" who can fix Gotham.

Like everything in JOKER, the "I alone can fix it" Donald Trump comparisons aren't subtle, but what happens in Gotham is tantamount to a revolution when word gets out that a guy in a clown costume killed three rich assholes on the subway. Soon, protesters flood the streets dressed as clowns, intent on taking the city back by any means necessary. Though his identity remains a mystery, Arthur has started a movement, and finally, people are starting to notice him. That includes attractive, single mom neighbor Sophie (Zazie Beetz), who lives down the hall, as well as a leaked videotape of a nervous, cackling Arthur bombing at Gotham comedy club open-mic night, with the humiliating footage making its way to TV courtesy of LIVE WITH MURRAY FRANKLIN, a late-night talk show hosted by Arthur's Johnny Carson-like idol and fantasy father figure Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro, looking embalmed). De Niro's presence is the most overt example of the Scorsese worship on the part of director/co-writer Todd Phillips (the HANGOVER trilogy), and while it's obvious Phillips loves vintage Scorsese movies and is trying to stretch beyond his bro comedy filmography that also includes ROAD TRIP and OLD SCHOOL, he doesn't quite have the knack of pulling one off himself. JOKER works very well for a while, but after about Phoenix's 26th or 27th laughing fit with accompanying dancing and pirouetting, it starts to become clear that the story is secondary to indulging the star's extreme Method tendencies. Make no mistake, an emaciated Phoenix gives this everything, but it grows tiresome no matter how remarkable it is at times, and starts to resemble a hammy version of his ultimately stronger performances in films like THE MASTER and YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE.

While it gets off to a good start as the most transgressive, depressing, and unrelentingly bleak comic book movie ever made, it's a safe bet that, despite the incessant media coverage, a lot of mainstream multiplexers are still bound to go into this expecting a Batman movie and are seriously going to hate it (you could also envision it as a comic book movie made by Abel Ferrara at his KING OF NEW YORK/BAD LIEUTENANT pinnacle). Augmented by a suffocatingly downbeat Hildur Guonadottir score that's beyond oppressive, JOKER begins to work at cross purposes in the markedly inferior final act. Part of this stems from the disastrous way that Phillips and co-writer Scott Silver (8 MILE, THE FIGHTER) handle Beetz's character, but also in the way the messaging becomes so heavy-handed once Arthur--by now a deranged murderer going around in full Joker makeup--finally appears as a guest on Murray Franklin's show, where he gives a rambling speech that sounds like a love letter to be quoted as a enraged rallying cry by self-pitying incels everywhere.

THE KING OF COMEDY did a brilliant job of conveying reality's blurred lines with the delusions of the hapless Rupert Pupkin, but Phillips--again, no Marty Scorsese and probably not the right director for this--either lacks the finesse to communicate that or doesn't trust the audience to figure it out, perhaps a combination of the two, though there's certainly an argument to be made that the entire film is just a figment of Arthur Fleck's imagination. The casting of De Niro is a missed opportunity, and not just because of his limited screen time. While Scorsese superfans and hardcore movie nerds will get some amusement out of seeing the one-time unstoppable dreamer Pupkin aged into Jerry Lewis' cynical Jerry Langford, De Niro seems indifferent to the material, much the way he did in his stumbling, cue-card-flubbing appearances as Robert Mueller on the last couple seasons of SNL. While functioning as a standalone film, JOKER does tie into the Batman mythos by the end and is an interesting major-studio experiment that's worth seeing once. But barring any real-life tragedy that keeps it in the news, the buzz on this is likely to quiet down quickly once initial curiosity about Phoenix's performance is satiated (Heath Ledger's DARK KNIGHT Joker still retains the crown) and word of mouth gets around.

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