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Review: Joker – “One of the year’s essential watches”

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Joker is written and directed by Todd Phillips (The Hangover trilogy) and stars Joaquin Phoenix (Gladiator), Frances Conroy (American Horror Story), Robert De Niro (Goodfellas) and Zazie Beetz (Deadpool 2).

Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) lives in a dingy peeling apartment with his mother, Penny (Conroy). By day he dresses as a clown and twirls an “Everything must go” sign, and by night the pair tune in to Gotham City’s version of The Tonight Show, hosted by smooth funny and popular ratings dominator Murray Franklin (De Niro).

Arthur already suffers from a condition that causes him to laugh uncontrollably when stressed and after losing his social worker shrink to cutbacks, getting fired, regularly getting beaten up for his condition AND bombing out his first go at standup and then being mocked on TV for it by his hero, Murray, Arthur snaps.

While Arthur is taking drastic action in a quest for truth and vengeance, with civility and sanity in short supply and the city’s poor already resenting its rich, Gotham is about to E-X–P-L-O-D-E and latches on to the clown who wouldn’t take it anymore as an inspirational figurehead for a simmering class war.

A lot has been written and said since Joker premiered at the Venice film festival. The hyperbole and five-star ratings have flowed thick and fast and the critics have sounded increasingly barmy in their lavish praise for the film. Surely a backlash was going to hit when the film started screening for reviewers not high on huffing festival premiere excitement fumes? No. There is not going to be any backlash. Joker IS amazing. Joaquin Phoenix is incredible. And Todd Phillips has made a comic book movie with more in common with a Martin Scorsese picture than a superhero movie.

Who knew Phillips had it in him? His Hangover star Bradley Cooper for one, apparently. Cooper is listed as a producer and amongst all the frat humour wrangling must have seen something special. Phillips evokes Marty’s grim and dirty 70s NYC look and feel of Taxi Driver and tells a dark and brooding damaged psyche story so grim it wouldn’t be made by a major studio without being tied to Batman.

Joker is set in the past but feels very much like it’s on the lips of now with its fractured political landscape and divided and seething population. Yes, it’s a Gotham where Batman’s dad is running for Mayor, but Phillips styles it like a Trumpian snakepit populated by Brexit Britain.

Phoenix is absolutely amazing. His Fleck is sympathetic but also sometimes scary, and he has also undergone a physical transformation that has left him a gaunt set of ribs with a chilling uncontainable cackle and a suspicion that he just may be more aware than he lets on. De Niro is so good too, and it is so great to see him being great in a great film. Between this and The Irishman, 2019 could and should be the year of the De Nir-aisance.

Frances Conroy is absolutely devastating as the perhaps deranged mother full of secrets, and Zazie Beetz as the neighbour that Arthur has a crush on does not get an awful lot to do, which will feel like a problem for a while until everything becomes terrifyingly clear later.

Joker is billed as being a one-shot with no further adventures planned for this incarnation or possibility of a Batman film set in this take, but you will want more. You will wish it was two hours longer and you will be desperate to know and see what The Joker will do next and what Batman would even be in this reality.

Believe the hype. Joker is a heavy, deeply psychological, hyper bleak tragedy featuring an hypnotic performance from Joaquin Phoenix as the beaten-down clown that is an oversized shoo-in for an Oscar.

Joker is one of the year’s essential watches and the best DC film since The Dark Knight. The cinematic world of The Caped Crusader will never be the same again.

Joker is released in the UK on the 4th of October.

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