By Chic DiCiccio
Director Todd Phillips has done something incredible with “Joker.” He’s made a movie that’s unbelievably crafted, shot, written and acted … that you absolutely only need to watch once.
“Joker” is an incendiary culture bomb that should be praised for its moviemaking brilliance but stop short of lionizing the main character as some sort of hero. The late 1970s-early 1980s setting makes the cynical social commentary seem far-off and more palatable, but it doesn’t change the fact that its main character is not someone you want to hang out with for 122 minutes.
That’s the mental trick that Phillips, his co-writer Scott Silver and star Joaquin Phoenix need to pull on an audience. Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck is loaded with self-pity, self-loathing, and “Joker” spends a fair amount of time making you sympathize with his plight. The film is daring viewers to stick with Arthur as he reaches his tipping point and devolves into anarchic violence.
So what gets Arthur to that tipping point? It could be his odd (and completely fictional) condition that causes him to burst into laughter at inopportune times. Perhaps it’s the burden of caring for his sickly mother (Frances Conroy), which is exceptionally creepy and sad.
Arthur’s health also impacts his job as a clown and hinders his desire to become a stand-up comedian like his idol, late night talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert DeNiro). Slowly but surely, Arthur blames the world around him for his problems. Instead of negatively affecting him, a violent act propels him to ignite a relationship with his neighbor, Sophie (Zazie Beetz), and fills him with unforeseen confidence. Clown-clad, Arthur-inspired protestors fill Gotham City, and their ire is directed at the wealthy, but mostly at mayoral candidate and father of future-winged vigilante, Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen).
Much has and will be said about the hot buttons that “Joker” is pushing, but it’s another tale (albeit a bleak one) of the haves and have-nots. The film smartly puts the flaws of everyone on display, essentially saying that we’re all at fault for everything. It never makes excuses for Arthur’s violent outbursts, and sane people will easily distinguish how far is too far.
It’s hard to believe that the guy who directed “Old School” directed “Joker.” Phillips has heavily copped from Martin Scorsese here, but if you’re going to steal … steal from the best. There are so many shots and sequences that are impossible to shake off or ignore, either due to it being a gut punch or painfully uncomfortable. The shots of Arthur dancing his way down a set of steps are in every trailer, but it is eerily exhilarating in the film and you may briefly hate yourself for liking Arthur at that point.
You may be wondering why you’d like Arthur at all. That’s due to Joaquin Phoenix and the greatest piece of method acting in potentially decades. Sure, he’s 100 percent over the top and self-indulgent, but so is Arthur. His grossly slight and underweight figure is almost as frightening as his behavior. As Phoenix slowly and deliberately morphs into Joker, he purposefully looks and sounds more comfortable in his own skin. It’s a brilliant turn from victim to victimizer, with Phoenix absolutely begging you to care for him, and then when you do, you immediately want to shower the filth off yourself for doing so. People are going to hate “Joker” and people are going to love “Joker.” It’s an impeccable, thought-provoking and smart film, but you should maybe be scared of the people who really, really love it.