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With: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen, Shea Whigham, Bill Camp, Glenn Fleshler, Leigh Gill, Josh Pais, Rocco Luna, Marc Maron, Sondra James, Murphy Guyer
Written by: Todd Phillips, Scott Silver
Directed by: Todd Phillips
MPAA Rating: R for strong bloody violence, disturbing behavior, language and brief sexual images
Running Time: 122
Date: 10/03/2019

Joker (2019)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Clown Burst

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Todd Phillips's Joker is a comic book movie as filtered through the lens of gritty, brutal New York movies like Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy.

Robert De Niro is even here as a snarky TV comedy show host similar to the one played by Jerry Lewis in The King of Comedy, where De Niro was the delusional Rupert Pupkin, a character not far off from Joaquin Phoenix's severe, tormented Joker, a.ka. Arthur Fleck.

It's the early 1980s, during a notorious garbage worker strike in a Gotham City that feels like New York. Arthur works as a professional clown, dancing and holding signs for going-out-of-business sales or singing for sick kids in a hospital.

He lives with and takes care of his ailing mother (Frances Conroy), who holds out hope that her fleeting association with the wealthy, politically powerful Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) will pull them out of poverty.

Arthur also takes lots of meds and sees a social worker once a week; the only thing really said about his condition is that he tends to burst into sinister laughter at inappropriate times.

Unfortunately, after a group of kids steal his sign and beat him up, and a co-worker gives him a gun, he is fired. Then, he's informed that a struggling city has cut funding to social services, so... no more weekly meetings, and no more pills.

Meanwhile, he meets pretty neighbor and single mother Sophie (Zazie Beetz) and takes her to see his nightclub comedy "act." The act is videotaped and sent to Murray Franklin (De Niro), who airs it, and then invites Arthur on the show.

But, at that point, Arthur just might have had enough.

All of Joker is filled with despair. It's a world in which the rich and powerful promise to save everyone, but honestly don't care about anyone who's not already rich and powerful.

On a television interview, Wayne disparages anyone that hasn't made something of themselves, insults them by calling them "clowns." It's a turn of phrase that inspires citywide rage.

In one sneeringly ironic scene, a seething demonstration of clown-masked downtrodden, on the verge of rioting, protests outside a gala showing of Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times, attended by the city's elite, all laughing in delight at the exploits of a homeless clown.

Weirdly, this is all directed by Todd Phillips, who is known for lowbrow, and mostly dumb comedies, and especially the $277 million hit The Hangover. But his career began with a remarkable and terrifying 1993 documentary called Hated: GG Allin & the Murder Junkies.

It told the story of the truly hardcore punk rocker Allin, who died at the age of 36 after a career of doing the most unspeakable things on stage, either because he was angry, artistically intense, or merely bonkers.

Phillips brings some of that energy to Joker, and Phoenix meets him halfway with his feral, ferocious, full-bodied performance.

Though many actors, ranging from Heath Ledger, Mark Hamill, and Jack Nicholson at the top, to Cesar Romero in the middle, and Jared Leto elsewhere, have gone to extremes to portray this most prominent of all pop culture villains, Phoenix has the luxury of not having to share the screen with Batman.

He sears into Joker's psyche like a hot poker. Nearly skeletal, and with eyes permanently shaded by overhanging brows, he moves like a balletic contortionist spider, all limbs and big shoes and flapping bell-bottoms.

When he explodes into full-bore killer clown mode, his release is no longer entirely monstrous, but also heartbreaking.

In the comics, Batman catches Joker and puts him away, like garbage, but in Joker it's the anger, hate, and ignorance of humans that made him in the first place.

Warner Bros. Home Video's Blu-ray release features absolutely smashing picture and sound, with multiple language tracks and subtitle options. There's a 22-minute behind-the-scenes featurette (Joker: Vision & Fury), a couple of short, music-based videos, and an interesting one (Please Welcome… Joker!) that demonstrates Phoenix's different approaches to a scene.

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