Scorsese Influences + Clown Makeup = Todd Phillips’ ‘Joker’

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CREDIT: Niko Tavernise/Warner Bros.

Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Frances Conroy, Zazie Beetz, Brett Cullen, Glenn Fleshler, Bill Camp, Shea Wigham, Marc Maron

Director: Todd Phillips

Running Time: 122 Minutes

Rating: R for Inappropriate Laughter and Shocking (in Many Senses) Violence

Release Date: October 4, 2019

Can’t a man just get attention for wearing a wonderfully colorful suit without having to also go through the trouble of becoming an unpredictable, violent criminal? With his forest green shirt and tie, goldenrod vest, and maroon jacket and pants, Gotham’s Clown Prince of Crime has never looked better than he does in Todd Phillips’ Joker. That outfit is a welcome bit of unique playfulness in a film that easily could have been a thoroughly dark slog. I’m very ready to embrace Joker’s continued relevance as a style icon, but as for what this particular origin story has to say about him, I’m a little conflicted, though generally impressed by everything that made it to the screen.

All new Joker portrayals now live in the shadow of Heath Ledger’s rendition in The Dark Knight, which I, and many others, consider to be the epitome of the character. That chapter may be the best way to tell a Joker story, but it’s not the only way to tell a story about a villain, and by corollary, it’s not the only way to tell a Joker story. But the prospect of a Joker origin is nonetheless concerning, as his most striking power lies in the nihilism matched with his thoroughly ambiguous beginnings. Ledger played him like an elemental force who was somehow also a human being even though it felt like he sprung from nothingness. Any origin would seem to be the antithesis of that, no matter how much mystery Joaquin Phoenix might bring to his performance.

Ultimately, though, Joker somehow mostly works despite all this baggage. That’s mostly because by the end it rejects its own origin story, or at least the one-to-one explanation of “difficult upbringing = supervillainy.” True, Arthur Fleck, the man behind the persona in this iteration, has been beaten around by a thoughtless society that doesn’t understand him, but his propensity for violence isn’t about revenge or the fame that comes with notoriety, or at least not only and not primarily those things. No, he just has an insatiable appetite for crime, the more shocking and well-timed the better. He gets his first lick almost by accident, when he protects himself against some fratty Wayne Enterprises employees with a pistol that a co-worker lent him. From this moment on, you can see the euphoria rising within him as he begins to shed any desire for normal human connection.

I am thoroughly impressed by Joker‘s craft, though I’m a little hesitant to embrace it fully. That’s not out of any discomfort with the message of Arthur’s transformation. It’s clear that he’s not meant to be emulated, despite how intoxicating his act can be once fully embraces his true self. What’s really nagging me is that this is a film that is a little too indebted to its influences. The premise is very much “What if Joker, but Taxi Driver?” Although, unlike Travis Bickle, Arthur isn’t interested in cleaning up the streets so much as making them his own. That’s different enough that Joker can fairly say that its overall tapestry is a new creation, but it never breaks fully free of its constituent parts. It’s like one of those magic eye posters, but in this case you can see the individual pieces whether you’re looking close or from a distance.

Joker is Recommended If You Like: It If Every Movie is a Direct Response to Taxi Driver

Grade(s): 4 out of 5 for the Craft/3.5 out 5 for the Message

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Suburbicon’ Pokes at the Myth of a Utopian America by Exposing Both Latent Criminality and Racism to Chaotic, Intermittently Thrilling, Results

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CREDIT: Paramount Pictures/Black Bear Pictures

This review was originally posted on News Cult in October 2017.

Starring: Matt Damon, Julianne Moore, Noah Jupe, Oscar Isaac, Glenn Fleshler, Jack Conley, Gary Basaraba

Director: George Clooney

Running Time: 105 Minutes

Rating: R for Wiseguy-Style Punching, Stabbing, Explosions, and Poisoning and Some Slap-Happy Hanky-Panky

Release Date: October 27, 2017

In the perfect mid-20th Century American town of Suburbicon (basically Leave It to Beaver sprung to life), the dream of raising a family with no worries and getting along with all your neighbors has been fully, uniformly realized. Or at least, that’s how it’s being sold. Whenever a movie begins with a montage praising picture-perfect suburbia, it is clear that we are actually in for satire. In this case, it is a violently screwball riff on Double Indemnity.

The idea that a utopian town can really exist is punctured fairly immediately when the home of Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon) and his wife Rose (Julianne Moore) is invaded by a couple of goons intent on thievery and terrorizing. Rose ends up dying at the hands of the thieves, leaving Gardner to raise their son Nicky (Noah Jupe) with the help of Rose’s twin sister Margaret (also Moore). But it soon becomes clear that Gardner and Margaret were behind Rose’s death, for the sake of paying off Gardner’s mob debts and so that they can cash in on the life insurance policy on Rose and escape to a Caribbean paradise. So this really is 100% Double Indemnity in the Cleavers’ neighborhood.

Ultimately, though, Suburbicon does not offer much new to say with its recontextualization, save for Matt Damon riding a comically undersized bicycle. Considering the talent assembled, that is notably disappointing. But it is not entirely surprising, as the array of violence involves the Coen brothers (who wrote the script along with Clooney and Grant Heslov) indulging in their most outrageous tendencies. At least Oscar Isaac livens things up quite a bit as the claims adjuster of claims adjusters, though his appearance is all too brief (somewhat necessarily so).

But wait! If that narrative disappoints you, why not check out the other fully fleshed out story existing within the very same movie? Suburbicon has just welcomed its first black family, although “welcomed” is far from the right word for many residents. It seems that this town’s ideals are false not just because it cannot keep the mob at bay but also because its lily-white identity includes a big hunk of racism.

If this sounds like two completely different movies, that it is in fact how much of it plays out. But that is also kind of the point. The racism portion gets relatively short shrift, but the idea does seem to be that Suburbicon, and in turn America, would like to pretend that this problem does not exist. That is a tricky point to make, though, and Suburbicon’s touch is not exactly delicate. Ultimately, then, the film is well-intentioned, but its tone is too all over the place for those intentions to be as clear as they need to be.

Suburbicon is Recommended If You Like: Anything and everything influenced by Double Indemnity, The Coen Brothers at their most cartoonishly violent, Two movies with starkly different focuses smooshed together

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Explosions