Can you be troubled and entertained by a movie at the same time?
Other films have prompted that question, but “Joker” may be the ultimate example. If you’re disturbed by its promise of a violent scenario of urban decay, it’s for good reason: Director and co-writer Todd Phillips doesn’t shirk from depicting that for a minute of the two-hour running time.
But the picture also wants to explain how Batman’s maniacally laughing DC Universe enemy became who he is, giving Joaquin Phoenix the means for a mesmerizing performance. While the part brought Heath Ledger a posthumous Oscar for “The Dark Knight,” Phoenix makes it his own with a physicality you won’t soon forget. His dancing on a staircase like a bizarre Fred Astaire absolutely ensures that.
You might be surprised to feel empathy for the character as his earlier circumstances become clear, but eventually, he becomes the Joker that we know and fear. Someone who should fear him – but his ego won’t let him – is The Joker’s idol, a talk-show host played by Robert De Niro in a neat reverse twist on his work in “The King of Comedy.”
An easy way to turn someone’s feeling for you from fondness to fury is to mock him openly, and that’s just what De Niro’s Murray Franklin does to Arthur Fleck, alias The Joker … resulting in the cautionary note the film intends to strike. The concerns that some have voiced over “Joker” even existing obviously are understandable; since the picture does exist, taken strictly in cinematic terms, it has to be said that it achieves what it wants to.
That extends to its invoking of Bruce Wayne and his family, against whom The Joker has a personal vendetta related to the treatment of his mother (the always excellent Frances Conroy), a former employee of that privileged clan. We don’t get to the Batman stage of Bruce – this is The Joker’s movie, after all – but it’s interesting to see those seeds planted for the famous mythology that we know is coming.
The overall production of “Joker” is expectedly grim and handsome, but for any and every other element of the film, it has to have the right actor in the title role to work. Joaquin Phoenix very obviously is that actor, and while there is acknowledgment of the controversy surrounding the movie, don’t be surprised to see him put The Joker back on an Oscar-bound path.