Three-time Oscar nominee Phoenix may finally have the last laugh as Joker

Joker rolled into the Toronto International Film Festival or TIFF with a trump up its sleeve — it had scored an eight-minute standing ovation at its world premiere just days earlier at the Venice Film Festival and gone on to win the festival’s top prize, the Golden Lion, for best film. If the accolades were for Joaquin Phoenix’s performance in the title role, perhaps the audience had skimped a bit on the applause.

As anyone familiar with the Batman story knows, Joker is the most sinister and dangerous of the villains confronting the superhero, a manic presence who needs no reason to unleash mayhem in Gotham. Joker, directed by Todd Phillips (of The Hangover fame) and co-produced by actor Bradley Cooper, sets out to explore the origins of his depravity.

The man who would be Joker is introduced as Arthur Fleck, a clown for hire, struggling even in that profession during gloomy times in a bleak city beset by criminals, in a milieu inspired by New York City during the crime-ridden 1980s. Fleck lives in a dingy apartment with his mother who used to be an employee of Thomas Wayne, the wealthy physician and philanthropist, and father of Bruce Wayne, thus establishing an early connection to the superhero, even though there is no reference to Batman in the film. Fleck is also an aspiring stand-up comedian who idolises the television talk show host Murray Franklin, but is afflicted with a disorder that causes him to laugh uncontrollably and without reason at inopportune times. 

The film follows Fleck’s journey as he is fired from his clown job, fails at comedy, gets kicked around and finds out startling facts about his life from his mother. There seem to be few sane people in his world, including himself, and the series of daily disappointments and humiliations, coupled with his evident psychosis, finally drive him to vigilantism, vengeance and violence. 

Phoenix is brilliant as Joker, radiating pure mania and a mocking evilness as he transforms from a meek loser to a character almost amazed by the power of his random villainy. His emaciated body and elastic face enhance the intensity of his performance; his deranged dance on the steps in a later scene, dressed in a maroon suit, is a moment of cinematic beauty. It’s almost enough to overlook the fact that the television host Franklin is played by the celebrated Robert De Niro in a film that pays homage to two of the Oscar-winner’s best-known classics, The King of Comedy. With this role, Phoenix, a three-time Oscar nominee, could soon be holding his first Academy Award. 

As the Joker’s violent actions become tabloid fodder, he finds he has amassed a following of anarchist malcontents, who look like they’ve been recruited from causes that are currently trendy, with many wearing the familiar Anonymous masks and raging against capitalism. He’s happy to let them do his bidding, unbidden, as they torch, loot and run riot. This is where the film treads on shaky ground — although Phillips portrays the anarchists, and of course Joker, as the bad guys, the script does leave room to feel a twinge of sympathy for Fleck and the rioting scenes, including disturbing attacks on police officers, can come off looking cathartic rather than criminal. In societies dealing with protests and gun violence — in July 2012, a gunman killed 12 and injured several dozen people at a screening of The Dark Knight Rises, a Batman movie, and called himself the Joker in one of the worst mass shootings in the US in recent years — that tone could be troubling.  

TIFF is seen as the traditional kick-off of the awards season and festival audiences have often correctly picked Oscar favourites. On that score, however, Joker drew a tough hand in Toronto. It didn’t even make the top three in the TIFF Grolsch People’s Choice Awards for best film. Will Joker have the last laugh next February?

Joker is scheduled for an October 2, 2019 theatrical release

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