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Birth of a supervillain

Gotham City never looked so grimy and creepy as it does in Joker

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 3/10/2019 (310 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Warning: Joker will not leave you anticipating the title character’s matchup against Robert Pattinson’s cued-up Caped Crusader.

MOVIE REVIEW

Joaquin Phoenix stars in Joker. (Warner)

Joaquin Phoenix stars in Joker. (Warner)

Joker
Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Frances Conroy and Zazie Beetz
● Grant Park, Kildonan Place, McGillivray, Polo Park, St. Vital, Towne
● 14A
● 122 minutes
★★★1/2 out of five

OTHER VOICES

Like the anti-hero at its centre, it's a movie trying so hard to be capital-b Big that it can't help looking small.

— Ann Hornaday, Washington Post

Joker
Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Frances Conroy and Zazie Beetz
● Grant Park, Kildonan Place, McGillivray, Polo Park, St. Vital, Towne
● 14A
● 122 minutes
★★★1/2 out of five

OTHER VOICES

Like the anti-hero at its centre, it's a movie trying so hard to be capital-b Big that it can't help looking small.

— Ann Hornaday, Washington Post

Joker is on the surface the origin of a supervillain but more subtly an exploration of empathy and the personal impact of a society devoid of it.

— Brian Truitt, USA Today

As Joker gets grimmer and descends further into bloody violence, it becomes little more than a horror show, bludgeoning its viewers out of any chance at insight.

— David Sims, The Atlantic

It's certainly worth seeing for Phoenix, whose mournful eyes and choking laugh perfectly embody his character's lifelong query: "Is it just me, or is it getting crazier out there?"

— Sara Stewart, New York Post

A movie with the message this one hammers home again and again... feels too volatile, and frankly too scary, to separate from the very real violence committed by young men like Joaquin Phoenix's Arthur Fleck in America almost every day.

— Leah Greenblatt, Entertainment Weekly

Indeed, this is not a movie that feels remotely invested in expanding the DC comic universe. It feels perversely stand-alone, befitting its anti-hero, the most alienated screen loner since Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle.

That would be Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a guy who lives on the edge of destitution, both spiritual and economic. He cares for his bedridden mother Penny (Frances Conroy) in a slummy apartment. When he’s not meeting with social workers, or walking the rainy, garbage-strewn streets of Gotham City, he works as a clown for hire. He also aspires to be a standup comedian, dreaming of the day he might appear with the host of his favourite talk show, Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro). (This plot point is an overt nod to Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy, which starred De Niro as the pathetic would-be comedian. It is one of many nods to classic Scorsese in particular, and grungy ‘70s films in general.)

But fortune smiles not on emaciated Arthur. One problem: he’s as creepy as hell, afflicted in particular with an involuntary manic laugh that possesses him at the worst possible moments. Yet hope rests with a single mom-neighbour, Sophie (Zazie Beetz) who is mysteriously not repulsed by Arthur’s attention.

Things spin out of control when Arthur is spurred to commit a vigilante act of violence on a subway car. Arthur is driven ever more to the edge as he starts investigating his past, which may be tied to a certain wealthy Gotham City family. From these ghastly beginnings will come... the Clown Prince of Crime.

Director Todd Phillips, who co-scripted Joker with Scott Silver, may have a kinship with the title character. Phillips made his bones in comedy (The Hangover, Road Trip) but one can assume over time the man’s sense of humour soured. (We can all agree Hangover 3 put that writing on the wall.)

In radically changing course, one has to admire how Phillips takes extraordinary, unprecedented liberty with the genre. This is a grim, gritty and entirely unique depiction of madness. The sheer grunge of the thing is impressive, especially in the context of the comic book movie, which is usually more visually antiseptic.

Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is a guy who lives on the edge of destitution, both spiritual and economic. (Warner Bros.)

Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is a guy who lives on the edge of destitution, both spiritual and economic. (Warner Bros.)

Phoenix is down for it all. The Joker has always invited a certain operatic approach by actors who embrace the character’s inherent theatricality. Phoenix commits to the character’s tragic origins with startling feeling.

In advance of opening, the film endured some consternation about Arthur/Joker coming off as some kind of incel messiah, a potential rallying point for sociopaths. But he’s no more a hero than Norman Bates or Patrick Bateman. The fact he ends up attracting a following in the movie is dismayingly credible in an era when the United States lives under the dark shadow of a personality cult.

From a purely practical standpoint, the more serious problem with the character is that the Joker is... um, not terribly bright. He can barely spell. Where does he get the traction to become a future master criminal without even a semblance of outlaw guile?

Robert De Niro (left) as talk-show host Murray Franklin meets the Joker. (Warner Bros.)

Robert De Niro (left) as talk-show host Murray Franklin meets the Joker. (Warner Bros.)

In the greater DC universe, he bears no connection to, say, Jack Nicholson’s canny hoodlum-gone-psycho in Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) or Jared Leto’s best-forgotten sado-masochist punk from Suicide Squad (2016). One guesses Phillips is trying to draw a line between Arthur and Heath Ledger’s Joker from The Dark Knight (2008) as the ultimate nihilist — as Michael Caine so astutely described him: a man who just wants to watch the world burn.

Phoenix’s take on the character, whose scars are all on the inside, might explain how a person gets that way. Beyond that, it’s best to watch Joker under the assumption it’s a one-off. An expensive, risky, impossibly gloomy one-off.

randall.king@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @FreepKing

Fleck is creepy as hell, afflicted in particular with an involuntary manic laugh that possesses him at the worst possible moments. (Warner Bros.)

Fleck is creepy as hell, afflicted in particular with an involuntary manic laugh that possesses him at the worst possible moments. (Warner Bros.)

Randall King

Randall King
Reporter

In a way, Randall King was born into the entertainment beat.

Read full biography

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