In Brief: Wow. It’s the best description I can give you. A plain and simple wow from a movie that is anything but plain and simple.
Joker — as most of you know — is the story of Arthur Fleck. In this movie he is just Joker and not The Joker. It is — however — the same character and one of a stable of villains that DC Comics gave Batman to battle. Their relationship began on April 25, 1940.
Since then a bunch of actors have done the role in the movies and on TV. The movies — especially — have transformed The Joker into the Caped Crusader’s most formidable foe.
And — I might add — into one of our all-time favorite villains.
You’re hearing a lot about the acting, but there is also a story. It’s ugly and dark. Joker is set in the 1980s. Gotham City is corrupt and in decay. The city’s politicians dote on the rich and ignore the poor. Garbage and rats are everywhere. Crime is rampant. Poor Fleck lives with his messed up mom in a dingy little apartment and ekes out a living as a clown.
Fleck also has serious mental problems. He’s in ineffective counseling and eats anti-depressant meds by the bottle. The man lives on the edge sanity. One fateful day he’s had enough, the universe tips and he explodes.
Joker is the story of that explosion.
Joaquin Phoenix stars. He’s the reason to see the movie. Other characters — including Robert DeNiro’s nighttime TV star — float through the movie but everything centers on Phoenix and his performance is riveting.
His interpretation of the character — however — has led to questions. Is he as good as Heath Ledger or Jack Nicholson or the other actors who’ve either played or voiced the part.
The answer is yes.
A bit of history before we explore that subject. Somewhere along the line The Joker picked up the name Jack. The first time The Joker got any kind of live-action notoriety was in the old Batman TV series in 1966. Caesar Romero was just called The Joker and had a blast cackling his way through horribly written lines and the bad acting of his co-stars.
A couple of decades later in 1989 The Joker came alive via some impressive work by Nicholson in Tim Burton’s Batman. This time around the name Jack resurfaces and he’s Jack Napier. Nicholson clearly had as much fun doing the character as Romero while managing to make The Joker much, much darker. He also picked up a Golden Globe nomination but — sadly — didn’t get Oscar attention.
As good as Nicholson was, Heath Ledger topped him and won a Golden Globe and an Oscar for his performance in 2008’s The Dark Knight. This time he’s Joker and not The Joker and I can’t find a real name attached to the character. So Joker it is.
Jered Leto gave the character a shot in Suicide Squad in 2016. The name went back to The Joker. No matter, he pretty much sucked. Maybe it’s not all Leto’s fault since the movie did, too.
A lot of others have played The Joker and many who’ve done the character might surprise you.
Zach Galifianakis is pretty well known for doing The Joker’s voice in The Lego Batman Movie. What you probably don’t know is that Star Trek Next Generation’s Brent Spiner gave voice to the character in 2011 and Mark Hamill of Star Wars fame has been the voice of The Joker as well.
Except for Leto, pretty good work by all.
Now comes Phoenix playing poor, pathetic Fleck. The “the” in The Joker — like Ledger’s character — is dropped and he’s just Joker, and not a Jack but an Arthur. But do we really care about the name change? No. What we wonder is how good is his performance.
It is even better than what you’ve seen in the trailer. But is his acting better than Ledger’s? That what you really want to know. The answer? Until now it’s been Ledger but the king has been dethroned.
The reason why in a minute.
Phoenix — who has blown minds with incredible work in films like The Master, Walk the Line and Gladiator — has never been better. And that’s saying a lot. Phoenix is a master of emotion. He also specializes in doing characters on the fringe of society and that often dwell in that liquid space between sane and insane.
With Fleck — and this script — he is forced to traverse every possible emotion from suicidal anger and screaming at the heavens to very disturbing, uncontrollable crying and maniacal, uncontrollable laughter. Tough stuff for an actor but Phoenix is flawless.
No. Make that perfect.
He — and director and co-writer Todd Phillips’ script — take you along for the ride. You run up and down a ladder of emotion as Phoenix explores the sad life of a guy cast aside by society. Fleck is a shifting shadow of a man swallowed up by an uncaring social services system and an equally uncaring society.
And he’s rapidly losing his sanity.
At the end of any screening, a studio representative will ask critics for comments about a movie. Stunned by the power of Phoenix’s performance, I couldn’t find a word or words that work. As I write this I have experimented with individual words, sentences and phrases and ways to describe his performance but nothing else works or even fits except for one word.
It doesn’t hurt that he’s plopped into a plot that is equal to his acting. This one is intensity times 10 and is sometimes tough to watch. At the same time, it is absolutely mesmerizing. You cannot take your eyes off of Phillips’ vision of an imploding society where — sound familiar? — rich and poor are at violent odds.
Except for the dazzling light of his very cleverly designed nighttime talk show setting that — complete with the multi-colored curtain and the Ed McMahon look alike — mimics Johnny Carson’s old Tonight Show, Phillips’ cinematography and movie is as dark as the story.
Shadow and gloom dominate. It’s dreary. Depressing. Devastating for all living in Fleck’s limited and sometimes violent circle. Phillips and Phoenix have visually mastered a mental meltdown and for the next few decades critics and movie fans everywhere will be raving about this movie and Phoenix’s performance.
Back to the question as to whether he is the best Joker of the bunch. While I loved Nicholson’s acting and loved Ledger’s work as the character even more, neither movie had much going for it other than the two actors. “
Joker has an intense, brilliantly written story to go along with an incredible piece of acting. That brings us back to wow. All the way around, the best description of this movie and Phoenix’s performance is — still — the word wow.
Director: Todd Phillips
Stars: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert DeNiro, Zazie Beetz, Francis Conroy, Brett Cullen, Bill Camp
Shea Whigham, Glenn Fleshler, Leigh Gill, Josh Pais, Rocco Luna
Rated R for violence, language and mature themes. This is one hell of a movie and features one hell of a performance. As I pointed out on the in-brief at the beginning of this review, the best description I can give of Phoenix and Joker is “wow.” Give this a 5 on the Friday Flicks with Gary o to 5 scale.
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Gary Wolcott has been reviewing movies on radio, television and newspaper since 1990. He believes — and this is an estimate only — that he’s seen something close to 10,000 movies in his lifetime. Gary is a lifelong fan of films and catches a couple of hundred movies a year. He believes movies ought to be seen on the big screen and not on the small screen in your living room or family room. While he loves movies, he also says reviewing film can be a real sacrifice and that he sees many movies so you don’t have to.
He is one of KXL 101.1 FM’s film critics and joined the news staff in 2014. Gary is also the film critic for Tri-Cities, Washington’s Tri-City Herald.