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Joker is no laughing matter, but it's villainously good

JOKER
directed by Todd Phillips

Joaquin Phoenix is unnerving in his portrayal of the Batman villain in an origin story that owes more to Scorsese than it does to comic-books.

There might not be a Batman in Joker, but it’s still an exceptionally batty movie. It’s the full flapping belfry, care of an unnerving titular performance by Joaquin Phoenix upon whose scrawny shoulders – he lost a reported 24kg for the role – so much of this movie depends for its big dark spark.

It may be Phoenix’s least restrained performance of a career that has over-the-top as a default setting. But he’s spellbinding, right from when we first meet his Arthur, a jobbing clown and aspiring stand-up. He’s a guy with mental-health issues and a Tourette’s-like condition that makes him laugh in tense situations. He’s just as captivating an hour or so later as he’s descending into the madness of Joker-dom, dancing a soft-shoe shuffle on a stairway to hell to the sound of Gary Glitter’s Rock and Roll Part 2.

It might all be set in Batman’s Gotham, but, really, it’s an impressive rendering of New York, 1981, complete with that year’s garbage strike and that year’s movies showing in those Times Square cinemas that aren’t porn theatres. It’s got an actual Wall Street, too.

The main reference points for writer-director Todd Phillips (a long way from his hit Hangover comedies) aren’t other DC superhero movies, either, but the Martin Scorsese-Robert De Niro films Taxi Driver (Big Apple alienation, tick) and The King of Comedy (deluded wannabe comedian targets talk-show star, tick). De Niro himself appears here, playing a late-night host that Arthur fixates on.

Joker has also got a thing for Charlie Chaplin. His anti-capitalist Modern Times is seen screening at a museum benefit for Gotham bigwigs; his song Smile is all over a soundtrack, which, when it’s not otherwise grinding gothic cellos into sawdust, has a thing for old movie and show tunes.

Inevitably, a character serenades Arthur with Send in the Clowns. He doesn’t make it to a second verse. It’s an early sign that the violence isn’t the usual sanitised stuff of comic-book adaptations.

A movie about an unhinged disenchanted white man finding self-actualisation through gun use has already put the wind up some in the US, with concerns about copycats. The movie does provide some insurance against Arthur becoming a potential alt-right halloween costume in scenes showing he’s no racist. Some involve a relationship with Sophie (Zazie Beetz), a single mother who lives next door in his apartment building. There, Arthur lives with his mother (Frances Conroy) who was previously employed by billionaire mayoral candidate Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen).

The Flecks’ connections to the Waynes may not end there, however, and after an incident on the subway Arthur finds himself a tabloid folk hero (“Kill the Rich!”) fomenting class warfare on the city’s trash-filled streets.

Somewhere in the second act the story momentum does falter, and a scene derived from the annals of Bat-lore brings on some heavy déjà vu that the movie for the most part avoids.

But, for much of the film, it’s easy to forget you’re in a superhero spin-off. No, Joker is no laughing matter, but it’s psychologically plausible, intensely thrilling and villainously good.

IN CINEMAS NOW

★★★★

Video: Roadshow Films NZ

This article was first published in the October 12, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.