The Flick Chicks

Jacqueline Monahan's Movie Reviews

Joker | Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Brett Cullen, Frances Conroy | Review

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Jacqueline  Monahan

Las Vegas Round The Clock
Jacqueline Monahan is an educator for the GEAR UP program at UNLV.
She is also an entertainment reporter for
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Joker | Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Brett Cullen, Frances Conroy | Review

Picture it: Gotham City, 1981, during a sanitation strike. Garbage is everywhere and class warfare is simmering with the ugly sentiment of “kill the rich” hanging heavily in the air. It’s a tense, unsavory time, ripe with the discontent to turn a downtrodden loner into a terrifying embodiment of rage, past and present.

Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is an odd, lonely man employed as a clown, kicked around both literally and figuratively throughout life. He lives with, and provides care for, his elderly mother Penny (Frances Conroy) while dreaming of being a standup comedian despite being the most unfunny, unsettling, and intensely creepy figure to roam the grimy streets.

Delusional but devoted, Arthur attends to his frail mother who is fixated on billionaire philanthropist and mayoral candidate Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) telling Arthur stories about the man from personal experience. Arthur’s neighbor Sophie (Zazie Beetz) is his unrequited love interest. Life is gray, dismal, and devoid of laughter for Arthur, who suffers from a neurological condition that causes him to laugh at inappropriate times. Side note: There really is such a condition, known as PseudoBulbar Affect (PBA) that can cause both uncontrollable laughing and crying.

So, Arthur the comedian/clown laughs, but never at the right time. His pathetic attempt at comedy in a local club brings him to the attention of popular talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro) whose motives for the unstable guest are questionable at best. Meanwhile, Arthur’s daydreams and reality battle for head space like a light switch, spastically flicking on and off.

How the quietly weird Arthur slowly evolves into Joker through a series of progressively unfortunate events is a fascinating journey, a clown car, if you will, stuffed with bizarre, macabre, disturbing, violent, and tragic cargo. Add an all-encompassing sadness to the mix for a modicum of understanding which makes Joker’s descent all too relatable. We don’t condone his actions, but we understand.

Director Todd Phillips (The Hangover) co-wrote the script with Scott Silver (The Fighter) and the two invent a childhood for the DC villain. In doing so it accomplishes something unusual and surprising. At times Arthur, even as brutal Joker, is a sympathetic character while billionaire Thomas Wayne (young Bruce’s dad) comes off as a heartless d-bag. A true reversal. Bruce Wayne as a boy (Dante Pereira-Olson) is briefly featured, with a contrasting childhood of privilege that made all the difference in shaping his life.

You want to cry for the cruel, laughing man that is Joker. You want to hate philanthropist Thomas Wayne. It’s an ironic, upside-down world of garbage and clowns, rejection and abandonment that transforms Arthur Fleck into the heartless, conscience-challenged villain.

This is a chilling character study populated by the ever-intense Joaquin Phoenix. He is savagery personified in a red suit, with green hair, white face and large, fake smile. The actor brings a nuanced conflict to the screen in deadly closeup, bringing us along on his journey of learning to embrace his insanity like a gift of luxury and freedom in a depressing, dismal world where he not only belongs, but thrives.

Co-stars orbit his performance for feedback and contrast, but almost all fail to register any impact. Robert De Niro is merely adequate as a slick, mocking talk show host. Zazie Beetz’s Sophie provides insight as to why Joker may never find willing female companionship. Brett Cullen as Thomas Wayne is a loud, swaggering billionaire with a cruel streak of his own. Frances Conroy’s Penny Fleck is weak and needy, the kind of mother who often forgets her role and pays a ghastly price.

Take away the comic book. Pick a different city. Replicate the tragic history, the gradual warping of a once-normal human being. Amp it up to the breaking point and you have the broken, vicious lunacy of a man never in control of his future and finally pissed off enough to do something about it. Like Hannibal Lecter walking among an unsuspecting population at the end of “The Silence of the Lambs”, Arthur Fleck has reached his full madman potential underneath the greasepaint and grief, unleashing a vengeful fury into the world.

There was Cesar, there was Jack, there was Heath; now there is Joaquin. The green hair, the white face, the red lips, and quite possibly, the gold statue.


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