‘Joker’ is too much, and still one of the best films of the year

Oct 4, 2019, 11:55 AM | Updated: 3:46 pm

The new movie Joker is too much. It’s showy, excessive, overwrought and heavy-handed. But it’s also very good, in fact, one of the best films of the year. Despite its over-the-top nature, and maybe even because of it at times, Joker is a compelling and engrossing experience. It’s a visceral punch of a movie, anchored by Joaquin Phoenix’s riveting performance as the eponymous hero/villain.

Joker is a stand-alone, mostly outside-of-canon, origin story for Batman’s most notorious nemesis. When we first meet Arthur Fleck, he’s a young man working at a clown agency in Gotham City in the early 1980s. In an opening scene, his gig is whirling an advertising sign on the city sidewalks in full clown costume. When his sign is stolen by a gang of teens, he chases after them, in his oversize clown shoes, only to be viciously beaten by the gang in a nearby alley.

Renee Zellwegger gives an Oscar-worthy performance in ‘Judy’

Compounding this woe-is-me scenario is the fact that Fleck lives with and takes care of his sickly mother in a rundown tenement building. And he has desultory meetings with a social worker who has to sign off on the many medications he’s taking.

“You don’t listen, do you? You just ask the same questions every week. ‘How’s your job? Are you having negative thoughts?’ All I have are negative thoughts,” he tells her.

He also has a neurological condition that makes him occasionally laugh inappropriately and uncontrollably.

And if all these troubles aren’t sad-sack enough, we eventually find out some hellacious facts about his upbringing that make his current difficulties pale in comparison. Childhood trauma in the extreme.

See what I mean about excessive and over-the-top?

Incongruously perhaps, Fleck also dreams of becoming a stand-up comedian. He goes to comedy clubs to better learn the craft, usually laughing at the wrong lines while he’s there. He labors over a notebook full of excruciatingly not-funny jokes he’s written. And he worships the late-night comedian/host of the nationally televised Murray Franklin Show. That worship curdles quickly when Franklin (Robert DeNiro) mocks a tape of Fleck’s stand-up on live television.

Ad Astra feels like a sci-fi version of Apocalypse Now

Fleck just can’t catch a break. But that does set him up, inadvertently, to become the Joker and, even more inadvertently, the inspiration for a political movement born in the gritty streets of Gotham City.

Director Todd Phillips has invoked the name of Martin Scorsese among his inspirations for the film, and the connections are almost too obvious. First and foremost, Taxi Driver exudes a similarly lurid and downbeat sense of NYC desperation, with Travis Bickle an only slightly more subdued version of Arthur Fleck. Fleck also has a lot of Rupert Pupkin in him, the delusional main character in King of Comedy, who also dreams of doing stand-up on late-night television and turns to crime to make that happen. Just in case we miss the connection, Phillips casts Robert DeNiro, who played both Bickle and Pupkin, as the late-night talk show host in Joker.

What mostly sets “Joker” apart from the Scorsese films is Joaquin Phoenix. You can’t top DeNiro in those movies, of course, but Phoenix is asked to do something very different. He plays both Fleck and Joker flamboyantly, theatrically, excessively, yes, but with stylish purpose. Phoenix is not “acting” as much as he is “performing” his roles. At a critical juncture in his transformation into the violent Joker, Fleck exclaims “I didn’t know if I even existed. But I do. People are starting to notice.” Fleck wants to be a clown, wants to be a comedian, wants to be on the Murray Franklin Show because he craves the attention he’s been denied all his life. He gets exactly that whenever he puts on a Joker performance.

And I suspect Phoenix will get more attention than he ever has before for his mesmerizing performance. It would be well-deserved.

Tom Tangney on KIRO Radio

Tom Tangney

Last Duel...
Tom Tangney

Poor Marguerite’s story saves ‘The Last Duel’

Tom Tangney says, ultimately, The Last Duel is a proto-feminist take on the Middle Ages with Marguerite's take that brings the film into focus.
4 days ago
James Bond...
Tom Tangney

Daniel Craig’s final James Bond movie comes full-circle

The 25th installment in the James Bond movie franchise may be titled "No Time to Die," but "Too Much Time to Die" may be more fitting.
12 days ago
Egyptian Theater...
Tom Tangney

Seattle’s Egyptian Theater hosts SIFF’s first ever documentary film festival

Seattle's Egyptian Theater is hosting SIFF's first ever documentary film festival. Dubbed DocFest, the weeklong festival features 13 separate titles.
19 days ago
Tom Tangney

A letter: ‘Dear Evan Hansen,’ the movie

Dear Evan Hansen, The Movie: I'm sorry I didn't like you as much as you wanted me to. I tried, I really, really tried.
25 days ago
nine days...
Tom Tangney

‘Nine Days’ is about as life-affirming a movie as there can be

Nine days to live. That's the premise of this new, refreshingly original movie called "Nine Days." But that premise is not what you think.
2 months ago
Tom Tangney

‘Stillwater’ does not run deep enough

Written and directed by Oscar-winning Tom McCarthy, 'Stillwater' is a contemporary story about a father's attempt to free his daughter from a French prison. 
3 months ago

Sponsored Articles


How to Have a Stress-Free Real Estate Experience

The real estate industry has adapted and sellers are taking full advantage of new real estate models. One of which is Every Door Real Estate.
IQ Air

How Poor Air Quality Is Affecting Our Future Athletes

You cannot control your child’s breathing environment 100% of the time, but you can make a huge impact.
Swedish Health Services

Special Coverage: National Prostate Cancer Awareness Month

There are a wide variety of treatment options available for men with prostate cancer. The most technologically advanced treatment option in the Northwest is Stereotactic Body Radiation Therapy using the CyberKnife platform.
Marysville Police Department

Police Opportunities in a Growing, Supportive Washington Community

Marysville PD is looking for both lateral and entry level officers. Begin or continue your career in law enforcement for a growing, supportive community.

Small, Minority-Owned Businesses in King County and Pierce County Can Now Apply For $10,000 Relief Grants Through Comcast RISE

Businesses in King County and Pierce County can apply beginning on October 1, 2021, at for a chance to receive a $10,000 relief grant.
Courtesy of JWatch Photography....
Experience Anacortes

Summer Fun Activities in Anacortes

With minimal travel time required and every activity under the sun, Anacortes is the perfect vacation spot for all ages.
‘Joker’ is too much, and still one of the best films of the year