Tuesday, 21 January 2020

Best Actor 2019: Joaquin Phoenix in Joker

Joaquin Phoenix won his Oscar from his fourth Oscar nomination for portraying Arthur Fleck who becomes the titular character in Joker.

Joker features a pseudo origin of the famous Batman villain, through the story of a mentally disturbed rent-a-clown who dreams of becoming a stand-up comedian.

Joker is the film that has captured the stupidity of many. I say as someone who typically respects most opinions as long as they are spoken with logic. Logic though was not to be seen with so many around this film, in so many different spectrum of thought, taking an aggressively foolish approach to this film, many of these before they even saw it. This with a odd pioneering of the film, or a near demand of censorship of it with similar hysteria behind them, with the most extreme and bizarre notion of so many that violence was sure to come from the film. That last element being quite disgusting honestly, with strangely so many, who likely would've condemned such thoughts for other films, for whatever reason fell into them for this film. Well all I can say is that is a whole lot of noise, for what is kind of a thin forgettable film, that looks nice, when you break it all down. This as re-watching the film, after only a few months, I was surprised by how much of the film I had not remembered, which is rare for me, but perhaps testament to the limited amount of substance. I believe when I first wrote of the film I described it as effective, though I did not get into much more detail than that. Well I will stand by that in the sense, that when the violence does happen you take notice, but it is of such a perfunctory nature that it fails to leave an impression beyond the first blood splatter.

The one element of the film I suppose I didn't forget was what I am here to write about, that being Joaquin Phoenix, who is such a great actor that he would struggle to give a truly forgettable performance, Irrational Man aside. This taking on the role of the Joker, that certainly feels like an actor's playground as it allows one to go to such an extreme. Brilliantly so in the last Oscar nominated Joker turn in Heath Ledger's take on the clown prince of crime, less so as Jared Leto's wannabe gangster doofus. Phoenix's performance though differs from all other cinematic depictions of the Joker in that in his role is not of a super villain, or even a true career criminal, it is as a disturbed man. The nature of the disturbance is when the film begins to vex me a bit, but at least it lets me finally get into Phoenix's work a bit. Phoenix is of course no stranger to the extreme of humanity, offering several brilliant performances this decade alone that focuses on idiosyncratic traumas. So here, this role is something Phoenix can thrive in, and he does. One should not hand wave Phoenix's work here because we know he can pull something like this off, that is indeed true, but if this was the first time we saw some of these scenes from him, they would be impressive on their own. A lot of this might not be something new from him, but it is still something he can pull off that most cannot.

Take the opening scene of the film where we see his Joker, named Arthur Fleck preparing for his day of workman clowning, you know that average job most people have. Anyway though we get to see Arthur preparing in a mirror attempting to fashion his own smile with a fingers, while a deep sadness that penetrates his eyes. That is well performed by Phoenix and we get this generalized idea of pathos here. We see his first bad day on the job as those anti-sign hooligans steal his sign, always a problem, and proceed to beat him, because there's nothing worse than those gangs of anti-clown, anti-advertisement people. There is nothing there but a scared man wasting away as Phoenix portrays the reaction to the first attack. We get the defeated Arthur as he saunteres home, well conveyed again by Phoenix in his poor postured, and trudging gait of a man who seems to be in the margins of it all. This whole thing is vexing me in one way that I will get to, but there is something else more obviously vexing in the meantime. This as we learn of Arthur's laugh. A well performed guttural laugh by Phoenix that he delivers in a pained, nervousness of a reflexive response rather than a genuine giggle. This is supported as such as a card informs us it is from a neurological condition. That's all well and good, certainly well realized by Phoenix, but then we see the same laugh typically used in a more sociopath way, where Arthur laughs at inappropriate times, thinking it is the time to laugh. This could be the card lied to us, or it could be lazy writing, for some reason I think it is probably closer to the latter.

Again the idea of the sort of synaptic response, is an interesting idea, particularly as performed by Phoenix, but the film doesn't quite stay true to it, as it just is Arthur's laugh the rest of the time. Anyway though we see Arthur at his home with his mother Penny (Frances Conroy), who calls him "Happy" and he treats with great affection. Nonetheless we see him fantasize about being called a surrogate son by late night talk show host Murray (Robert De Niro). A scene that is from King of Comedy, but it has De Niro in it, so I guess that makes it an homage. Anyway, Phoenix again portrays another potentially effective strand of an idea in the fantasy scenes where he delivers his line as though he is a 1st grader reciting an essay about how he loves his mom. It is earnest, yet disturbing, however this sort of stunted mental state, really required by the dialogue of the scene "I've been the man of the house for a long time", however doesn't really invest itself towards a general idea other than being a general off-putting sort of idea. Phoenix pulls it off, but it goes into the film's list of things that make Arthur a generally eerie sort, there for the sake of it, which is rather vexing. This breaks, very quickly, technically speaking as Arthur is accosted again, by those anti-clown, pro-Broadway, rich hooligans, they're worst then the anti-sign crowd let me tell you. They not only take the time to attack you, they also bother to regale you with Sondheim when doing it, that's rough man. And you know, Arthur, now armed with a gun, can't take it much either, as instead of being the beaten down man we see in the opening we see his expression burn towards a hate, before violently reacting by killing all the men.

We are given enough for that snap in a way, even if it comes perhaps too early in a narrative sense, in that Phoenix does exude the desperation of the man effectively, particularly in his scene with a social worker. This where he speaks of his bad thoughts, Phoenix filters each word with a deep seeded anxiety and anguish that does develop a sense of the man's broken state of mind. This idea of the man at this lowest point then who seems to find his "calling" through violence is disturbing enough. This with though usually set up by having Phoenix dance, obviously to show those Broadway hooligans, that dance is superior to song, or perhaps to show him embracing his life. His very first dance scene in clown makeup, realizes this sort of an effective way at least on Pheonix's end, as the film itself seems like director Todd Phillips didn't know how to get from one scene to the next he went, "uhhh Phoenix dance again, it's artistic!". Phoenix to his credit does find something in the moment as this release of emotion, after the first killings, and at the end of it becoming this triumphant Joker stance, that alludes to that more sinister calling. The film though then detours a bit as we get caught up into a subplot where Arthur tries to find out if he's the son of Thomas Wayne or not. This again falling into the film's way of kind of just running through different ideas then really having a proper narrative flow, though I guess you do get a bit of an acting showcase for Phoenix.

Well at two ends I suppose as one we get a scene where he introduces himself to Bruce Wayne, where he does a clown routine of some cheer though creepy due to the context of who he is. We then get another scene of him confronting Thomas Wayne about his assumed paternity situation. This where Phoenix actually gets a little strangely whiny and makes the situation less palatable. He gets to make up for that though in the scene where he decides to track down the information for himself at Arkham Asylum from a clerk (Brian Tyree Henry). This may be the best scene in the film as it is actually filmed in a way to capture both what Phoenix is doing and the reaction to Phoenix in Henry's performance. A consistent problem in the film in the way it so constricts the view around Phoenix it actually limits his impact in a way. This as he speaks about his changes in mind having "lost it" as he speaks about doing bad things. Phoenix is excellent in this moment in being truly chilling in the confidence in which he speaks of again the man seeming as though he has found his purpose. In turn Henry is also provides an essential element in the scene in his slow realization of terror as he begins to understand what Arthur is talking about. It is a great moment for Phoenix as he manages to really grant the sense of the creation of a much darker fiend in that instance. This is even followed up by another great scene for Phoenix anyways, where he discovers the apparent truth that he was adopted into an abusive situation that caused his brain injury. There Phoenix does excel in capturing the shattering reality in his emotional breakdown, and with that intensity that only Phoenix really can bring.

The film then kind of wanders around a bit more though as that subplot finishes with unceremoniously murders his mother, mainly because we barely see a reaction from Conroy in the moment. Of course again the killing is so soon, that really that subplot is there to fulfill the need for more screentime, until we get to the film's ending, with no real sense of purpose within these developments. This being as the film vexes me in how it introduces elements, the laugh, the firing, the murders, the fake relationship with a neighbor, his childhood, so many things, but with so little meaning. This more of creating funnels for shocks and extremes for Phoenix to play. One of those comes in his next murder, this time killing an old co-worker, who betrayed him, in front of another one who was friendly to him. Again Phoenix's portrayal of the vicious hate of the murder is striking enough, the scene itself is the one funny, though very darkly so, moment in the film as it plays around with whether or not he's going to kill the other co-worker. This as we get the spirit of the other Jokers when he fake lunges at the other man, and in that moment Phoenix delivers that unpredictable terror effectively. That scene in a microcosm, honestly has potential, but in this film it is another scene among scenes. Speaking of, we then get him becoming the joker again in dance, though this time a little sillier, maybe don't over do it Phillips, as some the steps become a bit goofy, as it is one time too many perhaps. If this sounds like a meandering review, well this sums up the film for me, that is just a lot of stuff that happens, and Phoenix is there to wrangle it basically through his talent. I mean imagine the Jared Leto starring version of this film, a terrifying prospect I know, but there you can see the success but also the waste of what Phoenix is bringing here.

Not done yet though as we must see him visit the Murray show, where we get Phoenix's worst scene, but not without quality. This as we see him waiting to go on the show, his festering hate that builds as he is made fun of, is palatable within Phoenix's eyes. The same is as he is speaking to Murray, and he speaks of Murray's cruelty towards him. In that very much his incisive eyes are indeed horrifying as you see a true killer's sense, though with also the wrenching anguish of all that the man has suffered as well. This although though is within Phoenix truly playing the Joker I guess, which is to play every line with this whiny "I hate the world" inflection to every line delivery and overwrought flamboyance. It doesn't help that his lines in this scene are downright terrible, but it is one scene where the film's awfulness really rubs into Phoenix's work as well. This as it is the one scene where Phoenix loses Arthur to what feels like a detached showboating that doesn't feel naturally built on what he had been doing throughout. I do think Phoenix gets to make up for this slightly, with his more interesting portrayal of the Joker personality in just the confidence as he watches the chaos of the city, and speaking of his enjoyment. There his mania is far more disturbing as we see a more natural transition from the desperate man to the man whose found his way through horrible acts. This is even capped with one more dance, that while gratuitous, is more so in that vein. It is really just a repeat of his dance after the first killing, but again  Phoenix does find an effectiveness in the creation of this Joker that feels like a natural transition for Arthur, as opposed to that prancing one we saw on the Murray show. This is a good performance by Joaquin Phoenix, as he does often make the protagonists journey tangible, and it definitely has great moments that only could be delivered by Phoenix's immense talent. The raw materials for an unforgettable portrayal of the character are there, they just don't quite come together due to a script without depth and a director who cannot point Phoenix in the right direction nor properly make use of his performance.You know, maybe actually bother to you know, direct him. Crazy, I know.


Luke Higham said...

Fair enough. Well I'm glad Robert won't leave. :)

Aidan Pittman said...

My issues with the film have certainly grown since I first saw it, but I still think Phoenix was brilliant in it. Honestly think he's the best of the lineup (minus Banderas, who I haven't seen yet), though Driver was excellent too.

Luke Higham said...

For Supporting

Calvin Law said...

Good stuff. I have lost my predictions but the satisfaction at this review is immeasurable. Also agreed that his scene with Brian Tyree Henry is his best scene arguably.

I’ve also decided to stop hating on this performance individually unless Joker somehow wins big on the evening. I’m having nightmares about it winning Best Score over 1917 and Adapted Screenplay.

Emi Grant said...

Eh, I can live with this. I *still* have to re-watch the film, but the major criticisms within the review do resonate with me more. Admittedly, none affect Phoenix that much in my view.

Calvin: I don't think Joker has a chance in hell of winning Adapted Screenplay. Best Score might just happen, though...

Bryan L. said...

Emi: I think 1917 can win Score if the campaign team behind it reminds voters that Thomas Newman hasn’t won an Oscar yet.

Emi Grant said...

Bryan: Oh, yeah, I know. That's the main narrative behind it. Still, would be a deserving winner.

Michael McCarthy said...

So me giving this performance a 5 was based on a purely emotional reaction I had to the film. I don’t remember ever feeling that bad walking out of a movie, and so I figured since Phoenix’s performance was the best thing about the film it must have been a marvelous performance. If I were to watch this film again when I know what’s coming and can be more objective, I may end up agreeing with this review completely, but for obvious reasons I don’t particularly want to do that.


20 actresses I believe will be on the Louis Morgan line-up (in no order)

- Zhao Shuzhen (The Farewell)
- Park So-dam (Parasite)
- Taylor Russell (Waves)
- Florence Pugh (Little Women)
- Scarlett Johansson (Avengers: Endgame)
- Scarlett Johansson (Jojo Rabbit)
- Thomasin McKenzie (Jojo Rabbit)
- Imogen Poots (Both from the Art of Self-Defense)
- Elizabeth Debicki (Vita & Virginia)
- Jamie Lee Curtis or Ana de Armas (Knives Out)

- Lupita Nyong'o (Us)
- Valerie Pachner (A Hidden Life)
- Awkwafina (The Farewell)
- Scarlett Johansson (Marriage Story)
- Saoirse Ronan (Little Women)
- Emily Beecham (Litle Joe)
- Alfre Woodard (Clemency)
- Florence Pugh (Midsommar)
- Jessie Buckley (Wild Rose)
- Constance Wu or Jennifer Lopez (Hustlers)

Robert MacFarlane said...

Yeah, basically. Also, I agree the Henry scene was pretty easily the best from both Phoenix and the film. I’m also 90% sure Henry is a future Supporting Actor winner this decade, the dude is just outstanding.


20 actors I believe will be on the Louis Morgan line-up (in no order)

- Al Pacino (The Irishman)
- Joe Pesci (The Irishman)
- Tom Hanks (A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood)
- Song Kang-ho (Parasite)
- Choi Woo-Shik (Parasite)
- Robert Foster (El Camino)
- Taika Waititi (Jojo Rabbit)
- Sterling K. Brown (Waves)
- Shia LaBeouf (Honey Boy)
- Robert Downey Jr. or Chris Evans (Avengers: Endgame)

- Robert De Niro (The Irishman)
- Willem Dafoe (The Lighthouse)
- Robert Pattinson (The Lighthouse)
- Adam Driver (Marriage Story)
- Leonardo DiCaprio (Once Upon Time in Hollywood)
- Aaron Paul (El Camino)
- August Diehl (A Hidden Life)
- Casey Affleck (Light of My Life)
- Adam Sandler (Uncut Gems)
- Roman Griffin Davis (Jojo Rabbit)

PS: in LEAD ACTRESS, take out Jessie Buckley and replace with Anna Pniowsky (Light of My Life).

Mitchell Murray said...

Oh no....this will not stand! The brilliance of Todd Phillips will be recognized! The legacy of "Joker" will live on, I tell you! It will live on!......

...eh, I'm just screwing with you, guys. Honestly, I can accept this take on the film/performance, unlike many misguided viewers who almost see it as a litmus test. My thoughts on Phoenix are known at this point; I thought he was great, and I thought his final "talk show" scene was well handled on his part. That said, my enthusiasm for the movie has always been average at best, so I can again respect the position Louis's review takes.