[Screen It]


(2019) (Joaquin Phoenix, Frances Conroy) (R)

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Dramatic Thriller: An already troubled man resorts to violence when his life starts to further unravel.
Arthur Fleck (JOAQUIN PHOENIX) is a man who lives with and cares for his ailing mom, Penny (FRANCES CONROY), in their late 1970s or early '80s Gotham apartment. An aspiring stand-up comedian who idolizes late-night TV talk show host Murray Franklin (ROBERT DE NIRO), Arthur works for a rent-a-clown business alongside coworkers such as Randall (GLENN FLESHLER) and Gary (LEIGH GILL), and thinks he might have some sort of connection with Sophie Dumond (ZAZIE BEETZ), a single mom who lives just down the hall.

But things aren't right with Arthur. Having been previously institutionalized in a psychiatric hospital and featuring a nervous tic that shows up as uncontrollable laughter, he's always on edge and must contend with disapproving looks, bullying and even being attacked. When he loses his job, he further continues to unravel and ends up killing three men who attacked him while he's dressed as a clown, thus sending already-present anti-rich sentiment in the city into full-blown protests.

That doesn't sit well with Gotham tycoon Thomas Wayne (BRETT CULLEN) who's running for mayor and who, according to Penny, will help them out -- what with her saying she worked for him long ago -- once he realizes the squalor in which they live. When that doesn't work out and now feeling alive and empowered by his act, Arthur decides violence is his recourse against those who've wronged him in any way.

OUR TAKE: 7.5 out of 10
I've long argued that a movie hero is only as good as the villain he or she must face and nearly lose to before ultimately prevailing. And while all fictional heroic characters obviously have some degree or another of a back-story about how they eventually became who they are, it's the superhero genre that has a lock on telling origin stories.

Don't believe me? Tell me something about the childhood of James Bond or John McClane. But if I ask the same about the kids who eventually become Batman, Spider-Man, Superman and so on, most people can rattle off the all-too-familiar particulars.

The villains they face, however, have historically received far less attention on such matters. That is, until this week's release of "Joker" where Batman is nowhere to be seen (well, if you don't count his alter-ego before that well-known fateful alley encounter) and the focus lies solely on one Arthur Fleck (played in a brilliant, Oscar-worthy performance by Joaquin Phoenix).

When we first meet the character, he's an aspiring stand-up comedian who makes a living as a rent-a-clown who spins "going out of business" signs outside of stores and tries to entertain sick kids in children's hospitals. But he's sick himself, and I'm not referring to his emaciated physical state.

Instead, he suffers from a sort of PTSD stemming from a rough upbringing, stints in a psychiatric hospital, a nervous tic condition where he can't control his laughter, and mostly from being marginalized and bullied by others, probably for his entire life.

He lives with and cares for his mother (Frances Conroy) who's waiting for a letter from Gotham tycoon Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), stating she worked for him years ago and he'd be appalled by and thus do something about the squalor in which she now lives if he could only see that firsthand. And aside from a few coworkers (played by the likes of Glenn Fleshler and Leigh Gill) and a single mom (Zazie Beetz) who lives down his apartment hallway, he has very little contact with others.

That is, except for some jerky kids who steal one of the signs he's spinning and then beat him up, and later a trio of intoxicated young investment banker types who decide to harass him on the subway while he's dressed like a clown and after he's been fired from his job. That's when violence rears its ugly head, and before you know it, he's killed three people and made the news as an anonymous, anti-rich, vigilante figurehead.

Unlike other anti-heroes such as Alex DeLarge ("A Clockwork Orange") and Patrick Bateman ("American Psycho") who are extreme sociopaths from the get-go in their respective stories, this isn't Arthur's calling, at least at first. He'd much rather end up on the late-night TV talk show hosted by his idol, Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), something he fantasizes about, just like other aspects of his life. But with a new taste for blood and considering the line-up of people who've done him wrong in the past in one way or another, it's not long before the deadly violence starts to become the norm and the villainous character is born.

Set in Gotham (as always, representing New York City) in the late 1970s or very early '80s, the film -- directed by Todd Phillips (best known for helming the "Hangover" trilogy) from a script he co-wrote with Scott Silver -- has the look and feel of gritty inner-city dramas and psychological thrillers from that era. And the same holds true for this being a character study (like they really don't make that much anymore) about a troubled man living in troubled times where -- yes, you guessed it -- more trouble is just around the corner.

While it's "fun" to have the various connections to Batman's origins story eventually show up (which is about the only time that word can be used to describe anything in this film), this offering could have existed entirely removed from that superhero universe with no ill-effect. And that grounded reality is what differentiates it from nearly all other comic book-based movies in terms of realism, thus giving it far more gravitas than most such flicks.

While Phillips and Silver obviously contribute to that (especially given the film's look and feel, as well as the story unfolding and giving us more pertinent information), it's Phoenix who does the heavy lifting and then some. By giving him some dreams and then a string of bad news, the trio makes the character somewhat sympathetic (maybe too much so for troubled sorts who might view him as a role model to emulate) and that obviously paints the character in gray tones and adds dramatic heft. When he finally finds his calling, if you will, it's mesmerizingly disturbing and the actor simply knocks that and the rest of the performance out of the ballpark.

I obviously haven't seen all of this year's Oscar-worthy films and I don't know Phoenix's relationship with the rest of the Academy, but if you're a betting person a safe wager will definitely be lots of Best Actor nominations and likely a bunch of corresponding wins. Certainly not for all audiences (especially kids), "Joker" is a master class in acting and seeing how and why evil can rise. It rates as a 7.5 out of 10.

Reviewed October 1, 2019 / Posted October 4, 2019

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