Joaquin Phoenix’s bleak central performance in ‘Joker’ helps it become the highest-grossing R-rated movie of all time

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“Joker” has now become the highest-grossing R-rated movie of all time with a box office haul so far of $1.048 billion worldwide.

That means the film beat out the doom-laden Wolverine sendoff “Logan” and both of the goofy, irreverent “Deadpool” movies. Todd Phillips, the director of “Joker,” even topped his own previous R-rated box office records with his three “Hangover” movies.

Since Jach Nicholson and Heath Ledger’s now-iconic performances of the Joker are so ubiquitous in American culture, the latest incarnation starring Joaquin Phoenix was always going to make a decent amount of money. After all, even Jared Leto’s latest attempt at playing the character in “Suicide Squad” helped propel that movie to a box office take of almost one billion even though it was, mildly speaking, one of the worst blockbusters of this decade.

What’s oddly fascinating about “Joker” is Phoenix never once had to tone down the creepy quirks of his usual performance style to court a mainstream audience; we all went to him willingly.

And what a performance it is. Phoenix has been one of my favorite actors ever since I saw him in 2012’s “The Master” where he played a socially inept outcast named Freddie Quell, who the audience isn’t necessarily asked to understand.

In “Joker,” he plays a similar character but goes for a more sympathetic slant than he did in “The Master.” Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck is enigmatic like Freddie, but he doesn’t want to be. He wants the world, and by extension us in the audience, to know who he is. He’s somehow both megalomaniacal and pitiful at the same time, and Phoenix makes the two opposing character beats feel equally as believable, often at the same time.

One way he reconciles the two opposing sides of Arthur’s personality is by moving in specific ways. You can see the change in his moods become so overwhelming to Arthur that he can’t do anything other than try to either react outwardly by dancing or sink into himself and hide his hurt.

Pheonix has a dancer’s grace to his movements at times, yet there are other moments where he moves his disturbingly thin body in such a carefree way that he makes you see him physically becoming Joker and leaving the clunky and reserved Arthur behind.

The tight-rope walk of a performance is thrilling and sobering in a way that leaves you wondering “is this going to be the scene where he snaps?”

Arthur becomes Joker not because he was born a bad person but more so because the Gotham of the 80s has basically taken everything from him and given him no choice but to turn to chaos. Watching a life-long trauma victim be slowly destroyed by a debilitating mental illness is something I expect to see in niche art-house movies like the aforementioned “The Master,” but I’m still trying to wrap my head around the fact that one of the most wildly successful movies of the year is this psychologically grim.

Maybe the hopeless tone is a reason for its success? Phillips has been successful at making grimy and sometimes mean-spirited movies his whole career. Although, he’s always disguised his affinity for bleakness with comedy that ultimately doesn’t really try to say anything political.

With “Joker,” Phillips willingly tries to toe the political line. The film is a character study first and foremost. However, in the background, there are themes of class division, racial division, wealth inequality, media oversaturation and healthcare reform.

I get the sense that Phillips wanted to make the political topics in the movie broad enough that any moviegoer could lay their ideology overtop the narrative. Because, for all of the overt political gestures in the film, I’m left wondering what kind of call to action Phillips explicitly wants me to react to.

That kind of open-ended interpretation could be seen as admirable if you believe Phillips steered the movie that way so each individual audience member can make up their own mind on how they want to feel; it can also be seen as a cynical approach to filmmaking that waters down what could be a potent political message in order to cater the film to the largest possible audience.

I genuinely have no idea which of those approaches Phillips was going for here. For all I know, he was going for a third approach that I haven’t even thought of.

The main problem is that I’m not left knowing after watching a movie this politically overt.

Overall, even if “Joker’s” political commentary is foggy to me, the film still succeeds because Phoenix commits so passionately to the role that he forces you to pay attention to him every step of the way as he transitions from the mild-mannered and harmless Arthur Fleck to the nihilistic Joker.

Last Minute Thoughts: The movie draws some pretty obvious parallels to 70s New York as portrayed in Martin Scorsese’s seminal film “Taxi Driver” (maybe my favorite movie) to the point where I actually forgot “Joker” took place in Gotham and not New York.

I don’t think “Joker” is as good as some of the best movies adapted from superhero comics like “The Dark Knight,” “Spider-Man 2” and “Logan,” but it is definitely the best comic book movie of 2019.

On a lighter note, check out Phoenix’s performance in the woefully underseen “Inherent Vice.” The performance is every bit as nuanced and interesting as the Joker except much funnier.

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