Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver is a great movie. So is his ’King of Comedy.
Todd Phillips’s Joker is not a great movie, but it’s a good one, and it has considerably more in common with those films than with any movie sporting the word “Batman” in its title. That’s because Joker is less your traditional superhero flick and more an intense character study about a manic, brow-beaten obsessive/depressive, played with relentless abandon by Joaquin Phoenix (Her).
Arthur Fleck (who will, in time, morph into the arch villain known as The Joker) shares many of the personality traits and trappings of Travis Bickle and Rupert Pupkin: compulsive, delusional, mentally unstable. In homage, presumably, Robert De Niro—who played the aforementioned antiheroes—is cast as talk show host Murray Franklin in Joker, with Arthur the pathetic, sad sack “comedian” who dreams of landing a guest spot on his show.
In their dreary Gotham apartment, Arthur watches The Murray Franklin Show with his not-quite-with-it mother (Frances Conroy) on whom he dotes. He’s a clown-for-hire by day and an aspiring stand-up comedian by night, but he’s not much cop at either. Zazie Beetz (Atlanta) plays the single mom down the hall with her typical panache.
Joker is dark, brooding stuff from director Phillips (the ’Hangover films) and it’s pretty much all backstory, which is wonderful if you’re looking for a creative and somewhat different take on the Clown Prince of Crime but less rewarding if you’re hoping to see any face-offs between our titular character and the caped crusader. Bruce Wayne does warrant an appearance in Joker, but he’s barely out of short pants.
Phoenix impresses though. I didn’t much care for him in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master—and avoided him in Inherent Vice (and Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot) thereafter—but as Joker, Phoenix is 100% committed to the role (right on down to losing some 50-odd pounds) and pulls off a killer characterization that compares favorably to Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning performance in The Dark Knight as well as Jack Nicholson’s effusive turn in Tim Burton’s Batman from 1989. His diabolical laugh is just delicious.
The best scene in Phillips’s film, ironically, is the one that’s mired in the most controversy: a “reborn” Joker in full regalia sashays down a concrete staircase to the familiar strains of Gary Glitter’s “Rock and Roll Part 2.” With Glitter (born Paul Francis Gadd) currently serving a 16-year prison sentence for sexual crimes against minors, its inclusion seems questionable at best, even if the ‘70s glam rocker is no longer profiting from the song’s use (sporting arenas around the U.S. began phasing out the anthemic call to arms shortly after Gadd’s indictment). The sequence just works, brilliantly: an exuberant explosion of new-found power from a dangerously troubled harbinger of ill will.
(c) 2019 David N. Butterworth