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

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.

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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.

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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.

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