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EUR REVIEW: Joaquin Phoenix Gives ‘Joker’ a Jolt

Joaquin Phoenix attends the premiere of Warner Bros Pictures “Joker” on September 28, 2019 in Hollywood, California.
(Sept. 27, 2019 – Source: Getty Images North America)

*When the just-released “Joker” film was first announced, there was excitement mixed with trepidation.

The anticipation was that this would be a unique comic-book film, based on arguably the most popular and recognizable villain in the history of the medium. The best writers and artists who write Batman always want to do a special, unique Joker story and previous films have given us iconic versions of the evildoer from Jack Nicholson to Heath Ledger.

The character was, of course, also played memorably in the classic “Batman” TV show and Mark Hamill voiced the definitive animated version of the villain.

But that’s also the problem. Many feel the character has been overused, resulting in increasingly weaker stories starring the pasty-faced prankster in the comics and an extremely poorly received version of the character in 2016’s “Suicide Squad” film.

So does “Joker” find a new story to tell that feels new and exceeds the hype?

It does. In spades.

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This is due to an incredible performance from Joaquin Phoenix as the Clown Prince of Crime. What makes the film truly refreshing is that Phoenix and the scriptwriters did not have any interest in making the character relatable or having a polished, wisecracking villain be the lead. No. In “Joker” we get what may be the first “artsy” comic book film – one that at times feels like a small, independent studio film.

The picture introduces us to Arthur Fleck, a mentally ill, impoverished stand-up comedian who feels he has no place in society. His constant abuse and neglect by seemingly everyone eventually leads him down the path toward becoming the nihilistic master criminal we all know and love.

However, the road toward that destination is not a freeway. “Joker” is most definitely a slow burn, more a character study than a madcap affair. But when the payoffs do come, they are worth it. However, Phoenix’s Fleck could easily fit in with brilliant crime films if he were not based on a comic book character and did not eventually don a classic look known all around the world. He clearly has issues from the beginning of the film, where he is trying to earn money for himself and his sick, destitute mother, Penny Fleck (Frances Conroy) doing what he wants to do more than anything else – have people notice him and make people laugh – by dressing as a clown.

We soon learn that Fleck is on seven medications, in part to help control his pathological laughter. Phoenix says he studied for the role by watching videos of .people with the pseudobulbar affect, or emotional incontinence, which Fleck displays constantly – by laughing at extremely inopportune times. This may be off-putting for some, but it is extremely impactful. So how potent is it that this Joker is already mentally ill and suffers from a laughing disorder, rather than previous versions in which “one bad day” makes him snap? Very. The term “tour-de-force” is overused, but in this case it is accurate. Phoenix’s Fleck is in every scene of the film and never gets boring. He is constantly giving us new insights into his tortured soul.

At times, Phoenix’s portrayal of Fleck seems more a performance than a character. We learn very little about Fleck’s past or his hopes and dreams, for example. Yet, under director Todd Phillips, every second he is onscreen you will not want to take your eyes off him. Phoenix’s indelible achievement merits serious Oscar consideration.

The only other two characters that get any significant screen time are Robert DeNiro as talk-show host Murray Franklin and Zazie Beetz as Sophie Dumond , who lives in Arthur’s apartment complex. DeNiro’s Franklin is a Johnny Carson-esque late-night talk show host who is one of the few things or people who give Arthur and Penny Fleck any joy. He soon seemingly becomes a little too much of a fan.This is a nice homage to the classic “The King of Comedy”, in which DeNiro’s character becomes obsessed with a talk-show host.

As we see Arthur Fleck sink slowly but surely into complete insanity, he finds that giving into it has its rewards. After he crosses the line and makes his first kill, we see him suddenly have the courage to knock on his would-be lover Sophie’s door and start kissing her and then we see her stand by him. This is a fantastic performance by Beetz in limited screen time.The relationship between her and Arthur does not appear to have any chemistry, but she makes it believable. There are so many more twists and turns that follow, I don’t want to reveal any more.

One note: For those who wonder if this film connects to Batman at all, all I will say is that Penny Fleck used to work for Thomas Wayne, Bruce’s father, and leave it at that.

“Joker” is a film that has a unique feel and that gives us some incredible performances and unforgettable moments. The constant laughing may grate on some. But if that makes you leave the theater, you will miss an extraordinary ending. So, the joke would be on you.

Grade: A

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