“Joker” — as most of you know — is the story of Arthur Fleck. He is one of a stable of villains that DC Comics has given Batman to battle. They’ve been going at it since April 25, 1940. A bunch of actors have done the role on TV and in the movies, and it is movies — especially — that have transformed The Joker into the Caped Crusader’s most formidable foe.
And — I might add — into one of our all-time favorite villains.
“Joker” is set in the 1980s. Gotham City is corrupt and in decay. The city’s politicians dote on the rich and ignore the poor. Garbage and rats are everywhere. Crime is rampant. And poor Fleck still lives with his emotionally messed up mom and ekes out a living as a clown.
Fleck also has serious mental problems. He’s doing ineffective counseling and eats anti-depressant meds by the bottle. The man lives on the edge of sanity. One fateful day, he’s had enough, the universe tips and Fleck explodes.
“Joker” is the story of that explosion.
Joaquin Phoenix stars and his interpretation of the character has led to questions. Is he as good as Heath Ledger or Jack Nicholson or the other actors who’ve either played or voiced the part. The answer is yes.
Some history first. The first time the villain got any kind of live-action notoriety was in the Batman TV series in 1966. Caesar Romero had a blast cackling his way through horribly written lines and the bad acting of his co-stars.
A couple of decades later in 1989 The Joker came alive via some impressive work by Nicholson in Tim Burton’s “Batman.” As good as Nicholson was, Heath Ledger topped him and won a Golden Globe and an Oscar for his “Dark Knight” performance in 2008.
Until now Ledger was the best Joker of them all. The king has been dethroned.
Since the trailer first appeared, I’ve had a dozen people ask about his performance and about the movie. Today I can tell you Phoenix is even better than what you see in the trailer.
A master at his craft, Phoenix — who has blown minds with incredible work in films like “The Master,” “Walk the Line,” and “Gladiator” — has never been better. And that’s saying a lot. Phoenix specializes in doing characters on the fringe of society and that often dwell in that liquid space between sane and insane.
With Fleck — and this script — he is forced to traverse every possible emotion from suicidal anger and screaming at the heavens to very disturbing, uncontrollable crying and maniacal, uncontrollable laughter. Tough stuff for an actor but Phoenix is flawless.
No. Make that perfect.
He — and director and co-writer Todd Phillips’ script — take you along for the ride. You run up and down your own difficult ladder of emotion as Phoenix explores the sad life of a guy cast aside by society. Fleck is a shifting shadow of a man swallowed up by an uncaring social services system and an equally uncaring society.
And he’s rapidly losing his sanity.
At the end of any screening, a studio representative will ask critics for comments about a movie. Stunned by the power of Phoenix’s performance, I couldn’t find a word or words that worked. As I write this I have experimented with words, phrases and ways to describe his performance but nothing works or even fits except one word.
It doesn’t hurt that Phoenix is plopped into a plot equal to his acting. This one is intensity times 10 and is sometimes tough to watch. At the same time, it is absolutely mesmerizing. You cannot take your eyes off of Phillips’ vision of an imploding society where — sound familiar? — rich and poor are at sometimes violent odds.
Other than the dazzling light of his very cleverly designed nighttime talk show setting that — complete with the multi-colored curtain and an Ed McMahon look alike — mimics Johnny Carson’s old Tonight Show, Phillips’ cinematography and movie is as dark as his story.
Shadow and gloom dominate. It’s dreary. Depressing. Devastating for all living in Fleck’s limited and sometimes violent circle. Phillips and Phoenix have visually mastered a mental meltdown and for the next few decades critics and movie fans everywhere will be raving about this movie and Phoenix’s performance.
Is he the best Joker ever? While I admired Nicholson’s performance and loved Ledger’s work as the character even more, neither movie had much going for it other than the two actors.
“Joker” has an intense, brilliantly written story to go along with an incredible piece of acting. That brings us back to wow. All the way around, the best description of this movie and Phoenix’s performance is — still — the word wow.
▪ Rated R for violence and mature themes. It’s playing at the Fairchild Cinemas Pasco and Queensgate 12s, at the AMC Classic Kennewick 12 and at Walla Walla Grand Cinemas.
▪ Rating: 5 out of 5
When I was five years old we lived in Umatilla. It was the mid-1950s in very small town America. Neither the bridge crossing the Columbia nor McNary Dam were finished. In those days TV was relatively new to American households and we didn’t have one. And it was before “The Wizard of Oz” became an annual Sunday night gather the family around the boob tube event.
At that point the movie was still doing a once in awhile trip through the nation’s theaters.
Good moms know their kids. My mom knew I would love this movie and one day she grabbed me, took me to the Mor Theater, plunked me down on a very hard seat and we watched “The Wizard of Oz.”
That day totally changed my life. It was my first movie and I have been in love with them since. I also fell in love with Judy Garland. That’s Judy Garland who was Dorothy. The rest of her portfolio — though packed with great films including version two of “A Star is Born” — hasn’t impressed me that much.
Garland never was better than she was as Dorothy in that now classic movie.
Studio head Louis B. Mayer — and her handlers — wouldn’t let Garland eat anything and practically starved her to keep her weight down. A fat Judy Garland wouldn’t be the darling of the movie world, now would she?
Later they gave her drugs to suppress her appetite. Then drugs were applied to sleep and more to wake up. Then along came alcohol, five marriages and other maladies caused by the abuse of Mayer and others.
That treatment messed her up for life.
“Judy” is a biopic about an ugly end to a career that started out with such promise and so much light. We meet her in the winter of 1968 some 30-years after she made “The Wizard of Oz.” It’s Garland’s last hurrah. Broke, depressed, drugged, a helpless and hopeless drunk, and total diva, Garland was forced to do a five-week run at a swank nightclub in London, England.
She died in London a few weeks after the gig ended.
Facially, Zellweger has a little harder edge to her features than Garland, but the hairdo, mannerisms and vocals are perfect. She has totally mastered the spectrum of negative emotions and the negativity Garland experienced for most of her life. Zellweger’s Garland is lost and helpless in the dressing room but in total command on stage.
It is the best Zellweger has been in a long time. If enough of the right people see this movie, this role could net her a fourth Oscar nomination and a seventh Golden Globe nod.
What lets Zellweger down is a so-so script by Tom Edge (TV stuff like “The Crown,” “Lovesick,” “C.B. Strike”) that is based on the Peter Quilter stage play, “End of the Rainbow.”
Rupert Goold (“True Story”) directs and mercifully keeps the film short. That’s good because there are not a whole lot of different ways to show the meltdowns Garland regularly suffered. Nor is there much you can do with the last few weeks of the life of a legend.
At the film’s climax — Zellweger, Edge and Goold — reward you for sitting through the last half of the movie with a wonderful version of “Over the Rainbow.”
It’s the song you — and I — waited the whole movie to see and hear. It is also how we all want to remember Garland. We don’t want to think of her last days and her decline. In our minds, Garland will always be the young girl with the golden voice sitting in a black and white pre-tornado barnyard belting out one of the most beautiful and iconic songs ever sung.
And it’s sung in a movie that — today — remains my all-time favorite.
▪ Rated PG-13 for mature themes and language. It’s playing at the AMC Classic Kennewick 12, at the Fairchild Queensgate 12 and at Walla Walla Grand Cinemas.
▪ Rating: 3 1/2 out of 5