Joker (****1/2): King of Tragic Comedy

Director Todd Phillips
Screenplay Scott Silver, Todd Phillips
Starring Joaquin Phillips, Robert DeNiro, Zazie Beetz, Bill Camp, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen, Glenn Fleshler, Douglas Hodge, Josh Pais, Marc Maron, Shea Whigham, Hannah Gross

First thing’s first. This is the 2nd best portrayal of the Joker I have witnessed. First has to go to Ledger, but damn this ties right into the character he built perfectly. He will be nominated and if all things are equal, he should win.

Todd Phillips’ Joker is a very good film. In it, we see society breaking down in the form of a garbage strike. As the film goes on, we see refuse piling up. It’s so clever because only the poor cannot afford to push the garbage away from their homes. We don’t see garbage piling up outside of the well to do, like Thomas Wayne (Cullen). Because he doesn’t see it either, he feels he has the moral authority to consider those who complain about their own circumstance clowns. This is much like any coastal city in the U.S.. Those people responsible for making and enforcing policy do not see the results of their own incompetence, and they criticize those who suffer its results.

This is the world of Arthur Fleck (Phoenix). He’s the product of a single mother, Penny (Conroy) who insists that her former employer, Wayne, will do what’s right by his employees. This will never happen. We know what’s going on well before her son does. It’s understandable, though, because Arthur has his own long list of problems.

Phillips and his co-writer Silver take the lead from two Scorsese / DeNiro films, Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, in creating the life and times of Fleck. From the start we understand Fleck has a criminal history that has him under the supervision of City counselors. This cannot last, and neither can his job as a clown.

His mother, fighting battles of health both mental and physical, thinks the world of her “Happy” son, but she also fears for him. She’s too far gone herself to understand what is happening to his son. We get to see it first hand.

After a real bad couple of days at work, Fleck ends up being jumped by three drunk finance guys for Wayne Enterprises. He happens to be wearing his clown outfit. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out what happens next is the start of a revolution.

The clever part of this film is that the revolution exists outside of Fleck. The Joker still hasn’t arrived, though it very clearly is on the way. His mind wanders in much the same manner of Rupert Pupkin, with the irony being one of his primary obsessions is a comedian played by DeNiro.

To those who’ve seen The King of Comedy, much of what happens in the middle act will be familiar, if creepier in that slightly more optimistic film. This time we know that the things that seem to be going well for Fleck are really just going to be a catalyst into insanity later, when the audience discovers the reality of it all.

Phoenix plays the descent nearly perfectly. The lone problem being one of his constantly having a heater in and around his mouth. Someone in his obvious state of destitution would not have the finances to afford to constantly be smoking cigarettes, which were expensive as hell even back in 1981.

Still his commitment to the role is commendable to the highest degree. He truly is the picture of the tragic/comedic mad clown. His method acting is in the realm of the work of early DeNiro or Daniel Day Lewis at any time. His partnership with Phillips yields some memorably intense scenery that should work its way into the cinematic lexicon.

The best thing about Phoenix’s performance is the development of the laugh. We get to see it develop throughout the film. At first he sees it as part of his illness. Then we see him shed that self image, and the laugh reflects that. It’s truly the tragic/comic clown that we’ve seen put into action in its truest form.

For his part DeNiro plays the part of the unfunny jester of the oppressors as good as he’s able by this point of his career. If he lacks the vulnerability of his own predecessor, Jerry Lewis, he has the ability to help set the table for an insane third act. His rigidity helps keep the train of the story on the tracks when we all know it’s about to go flying off the rails at any moment.

That moment is the film’s key weakness, and it feels like DeNiro is given the reigns when its been almost two decades since he’s deserved to hold them. Just as things are breaking apart, it feels like he convinced the filmmakers to let him do his best impression of Donald Trump. It’s here where he misses the mark and turns his own character to one of the cardboard caricatures Pupkin used to talk with on his home set. All I could think is that Jerry Lewis would have nailed that scene. One never would dream that were possible back when he did Goodfellas.

Another quibble that keeps this from being the perfect film it could be is the presentation of Alfred, the butler. I don’t think I have ever seen him presented so carelessly and aloof as Hodge plays him here. It’s almost like they just went to Butler’s R Us and grabbed one off the shelf, with no understanding of the character. At the very least, he should be clever and, perhaps, look like he could raise an orphan to become Batman.

That said, there is way more going for this film than against. Cullen’s portrayal of Thomas Wayne is clever and it presents a more sinister side that fits in line with the divide that Gotham always represents. Every scene involving his character is delicious and so much better than one is used to seeing when it comes to the patriarch of Wayne Enterprises.

Conroy and Gross present Penny Fleck as a sympathetic woman who has been screwed by life, but refuses to acknowledge the truth of it all. Her character is key to the development of the monster her son becomes, even if she is entirely sympathetic.

Phillips has great touches in building the tension in Joker. He took on a task heretofore undreamt of by revealing how the sausage is made for one character we never really thought possible. His skill as a dramatic filmmaker is on the path to Fincher and perhaps even Scorsese. Those who didn’t envision his growth from Road Trip to The Hangover to Joker will be pleasantly surprised.

It’s not the best film of the year, but it’s better than I had expected by a long shot. This is the best DC film since The Dark Knight. I hope that they find some way to tie it into the DCEU.

(****1/2 out *****)

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