So. Now that the movie has finally opened after what has felt like years of pre-release hype and inevitable backlash to that hype, a couple of questions about writer/director Todd Phillips' super-villain origin story Joker can at last be answered, at least from a personal perspective.
Is the film deserving of the much-ballyhooed, eight-minute standing ovation it received at this year's Venice Film Festival, where it walked off with the top prize? In my opinion, no. There are narrative failings here to rival those in any Batman picture, a few of the “surprises” feel awfully obvious, and the climax – by which I mean one of the climaxes – is, for my tastes, far too Zack Snyder-y in its slow-motion portentousness. But is the movie deserving of the multifaceted ire that's turned it into a punching bag for many major news outlets, with Vulture calling it “profoundly boring” and The Guardian deeming it “the disappointment of the year”? From my view, absolutely not. Joker may not be a world-changer, or even a game-changer, considering the frequency with which releases under the DC Films imprint shoot for dark, darker, and (now, for the moment) darkest. Yet if Phillips' franchise offshoot is “just” another deadly serious comic-book movie in a landscape overstuffed with them, it's a spectacularly engaging and unnerving one – the complete opposite of boring. In its star Joaquin Phoenix, the film also boasts a performance by a male lead as thunderously exciting as any I've seen since … . Well, since Joaquin Phoenix's Freddie Quell in 2012's The Master. The seemingly extreme natures of both that lengthy standing-O and the virulent critical takes made me somewhat leery about actually seeing the thing. Now I can't wait to see it again.
Much has been made, much of it derogatorily, about Phillips' and co-screenwriter Scott Silver's decision to model their film's style and content on Martin Scorsese's urban-nightmare classics Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, with the in-joke casting of Travis Bickle/Rupert Pupkin himself, Robert De Niro, lending the film an unofficial Scorsese-ian seal of approval. I'd maybe take issue with this approach myself if the results weren't so effective. Set in the decaying, garbage-infested Gotham City of 1981 (the year revealed through some witty, movie-themed mise-en-scène late in the film), Joker finds Phoenix's anti-hero Arthur Fleck the saddest of sacks. A clown-for-hire reduced to occasional hospital visits and the twirling of “going out of business” signs on the sidewalk, Arthur is a wreck: bullied and beaten by passers-by; ridiculed by his boss and fellow clowns; trapped in an ugly two-bedroom apartment with his aging mother (Frances Conroy). Making matters worse, Arthur has a “condition” – one explained on a laminated card he hands to strangers – that causes unprovoked, uncontrollable fits of laughing and weeping to the point that no one, perhaps not even Arthur himself, can tell the difference.
There are a few lights at the end of Arthur's endless tunnel: the apparent empathy and affections of a single-mom neighbor (Zazie Beetz); a planned standup set at which the fledgling comic can try out scribbled material from his “joke journal”; hopes for a guest spot on his favorite talk show Live with Murray Franklin. (De Niro plays the program's host – a gratifying, switcheroo nod to The King of Comedy that's no less welcome for feeling almost inevitable.) Yet Arthur's downward spiral continues. Cuts to the city's social-services budget – cuts approved by billionaire mayoral candidate Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) – deprive Arthur of the medications he needs to combat his manic depression. A stupid, easily preventable mishap in a hospital's children's ward leads to his firing. And when, in his clown garb, he's on an otherwise empty subway car and a trio of Wall Street douchebags kick the crap out of him, Arthur finally snaps, killing all three with a recently procured handgun. Although Arthur makes his escape, this would seem to be the man's low point. But then news of the crime unites Gotham's impoverished masses, turning the unknown “killer clown” into a symbol of hope for fellow citizens sick to death of one-percenter privilege. So what's a grease-painted loner with a maniacal laugh to do?
I'm presuming you can guess. You may not, however, be able to foresee just how cleverly and successfully Phillips' and Silver's newly devised origin saga will meld with widely known (and frequently filmed) Batman mythology. Not all of it works; Joker's tabloid-press rise to infamy feels particularly contrived, its apocalyptic hysteria and obvious V for Vendetta imagery leading to a city-on-fire finale that feels neither earned nor terribly convincing. Yet there are plenty of juicy diversions involving Arkham Asylum and the Wayne estate – Arthur's dotty mother figures prominently in both plot points – as well as hugely satisfying, nearly clinical details regarding how Arthur Fleck, scene by scene, grows into an icon of malevolence. (In true anti-hero fashion, though, this Joker can also be a bit of a softie, as when he lets one potential victim go free with a thank-you and a kiss on the head.) Few comic-book characters would seem to require an origin story less than the Joker, who's generally accepted, and cherished, as a figure of resolutely unexplainable mayhem. Phillips and Silver, though, deserve points for exactitude, as well for framing Arthur's journey through a lens of Scorsese-esque paranoia and revenge without their film feeling either showboat-y or cheap.
Quite the opposite, really. While cinematographer Lawrence Shur lights Gotham (a.k.a. New York) with the requisite Taxi Driver sleaze, the muted, shadowy browns and olives and grays are beautifully offset by flashes of vibrancy, particularly in the reds and emerald greens, that lend Phillips' film a legitimately unique look – urban rot meets Technicolor. (The visual design is all the more arresting given that, in the genre of the comic-book flick, every new release tends to look the same – either distinctly Marvel-ian or DC-ian.) And composer Hildur Gudnadottir's melancholy, strings-heavy score suggests an overwhelming defeat permeating every nook and cranny of Gotham until a blast of rock cuts in – most memorably, and creepily, with the sports-arena anthem “Rock 'n' Roll Part 2” – to shake the citizens out of their complacency. Joker is most certainly dark. But it's not oppressively dark; the film isn't the sort of deep dive into miserabilism that, say, last year's You Were Never Really Here was, to cite another downbeat thriller with Joaquin Phoenix as its star. The movie is peppered with sharp, occasionally off-putting visual and verbal gags (Conroy delivers a great one when asking her nascent-standup son, “But aren't comedians supposed to be funny?”), as well as a host of excellent character actors – Bill Camp, Shea Whigham, Brian Tyree Henry, Douglas Hodge – who pop in minor roles.
Plus, of course, the movie has Phoenix, and I'm prepared to say that anyone who finds Joker dull just isn't paying attention, because practically every second of the actor's screen time is mesmerizing. Phoenix, in his movies, nearly always comes across as someone teetering this close to madness, with the thrill of his best work lying in the exquisite wait for that madness to fully reveal itself. (This can be true in interviews, too, as when the actor played his I'm Still Here alter ego “Joaquin Phoenix” in that legendary 2010 David Letterman segment that momentarily convinced the world he was nuts.) In that regard, Phoenix's phenomenal portrayal here is the slowest of slow burns, with Phillips granting his lead the screen time to unleash a feature-length nervous breakdown that's both harrowing and suffused with unmistakable performance joy. I'm not sure whether the clearly hard-working Phoenix ever really has “fun” on a set. Yet in his unexpectedly graceful dance moves, and the tortured silences between Arthur's thoughts and actions, and even his grinning, unblinking stares, it sure looks like Phoenix is having the time of his life in Joker, and the tightrope-walk high he delivers is infectious.
Phoenix is so very good in so many scenes here – determinedly practicing his “off the cuff” Murray Franklin routine, creating a new standard for cringe comedy in his standup set – that he easily overrides the movie's defects, among them some borderline-ridiculous contrivances (there's no TV-station security check?), the too-many endings, and Phillips' penchant for filming Phoenix shirtless so we can gawk at the man's upsetting weight loss. (One shot of Arthur's protruding shoulder blades and visible rib cage would have sufficed, as the repeated sight of him half-naked continually pulls you out of the moment and makes you worry for the health and sanity of the film's star, not its protagonist.) Yet while Phoenix makes his latest showcase unmissable, Phillips' outing is most assuredly strong and worthy in its own right. Let the online debaters – and I guess I'm now one of 'em – debate. Those fights are unlikely to be half as engrossing and entertaining as Joker itself.
Drug and alcohol addiction, failed marriage after failed marriage, studio-system cruelty, estrangement from her children, fruitless battles against aging and irrelevance, death at 47 from an apparently accidental overdose: Is any Hollywood tragedy more heartbreaking than Judy Garland's? Even if one is, can it possibly be as affecting to us personally, given that our youthful memories of that peerless talent singing “Over the Rainbow” are forever tied to the inescapable knowledge of the performer's endless ache and far-too-early demise? I was moderately surprised when, this past weekend, director Rupert Goold's Garland bio-pic Judy failed to crack the box-office top five (landing at number seven with a relatively meager $4.4 million) considering how widely acclaimed Renée Zellweger's title performance was, and how many people I knew said they were looking forward to it. But perhaps hopes of Downton Abbey-size dollars were unrealistic given how shatteringly depressing the movie itself was bound to be. Bohemian Rhapsody, another tale of a doomed artistic genius, at least gave us “We Will Rock You” and “We Are the Champions” amidst the suffering. Judy, by contrast, gives us “For Once in My Life” and “You Made Me Love You” – wonderful tunes, to be sure, but hardly enough to make audiences forget that the experience of the film, in the end, can be nothing but sad.
To its credit, and despite a narrative that follows Garland on one of her last (aborted) singing engagements mere months before her 1969 passing, there are elements to Judy that don't make you feel like taking your own life, and Zellweger's performance is chief among them. It's hardly a tic-free portrayal, and certainly doesn't compare to Judy Davis' awe-inspiring channeling of the star in TV's Life with Judy Garland: Me & My Shadows mini-series from 2001. While her lip-syncing was eerily accurate, though, Davis didn't sing. Zellweger sure as hell does, and her renditions of “By Myself,” “The Trolley Song,” “San Francisco,” and, of course, “Over the Rainbow” are lovely and sometimes thrilling, even if you're never reminded of Garland so much as Zellweger herself as Roxie Hart in Chicago. But Judy's lead comes through with emotional, occasionally startling bits throughout, and Zellweger's capitalized Acting really works in those moments in which Garland's show-biz bravada fails her, and you can sense the woman's desperation in trying to turn grim news into casual fodder for future anecdotes.
Goold's movie, however, is just as conventional, and consequently as blah, as most musician-themed bio-pics, featuring unnecessary, intrusive flashbacks to Garland's early days in Tinseltown – a miscast Darci Shaw plays the young Judy – and presumably complicated figures flatted out with cartoonish obviousness. (Richard Cordery plays MGM head Louis B. Mayer as a hulking meanie out of a B-movie noir; Finn Wittrock has “Untrustworthy Opportunist!” all but plastered on his forehead as Garland's last husband Mickey Deans.) Yet there are wonderful sequences throughout, particularly the mid-film nod to Garland's considerable gay fan base that leads to touching intimacy over late-night scrambled eggs. And I dare anyone not to cry at the admittedly sentimental finale, which, as it must, climaxes with “Over the Rainbow.” The two pairs of nearby Patrons of a Certain Age at my Friday screening certainly wept … as well as talked – loudly, incessantly – through the whole of the movie's two hours. “Oh-h-h-h … that's Mickey Rooney!” “See? She really did love her children!” “I have a lamp just like that one!” For all of its flaws, Judy is mostly worth seeing. Preferably, perhaps, a few months down the line from the safety of your living room.