The JokerWarner Bros.

Warner Brothers

In “Joker,” Joaquin Phoenix plays Arthur Fleck, a troubled man who society has forgotten.

The 44th annual Toronto International Film Festival was, as usual, front-loaded with major motion pictures during its opening 5-day period, which runs on a jam-packed Thursday through Monday schedule. King Street West is shuttered and a pop-up pedestrian-friendly Festival Village draws thousands of movie fans, ticket-holders, and star-chasers. 

The festival itself is an eleven-day extravaganza of hundreds of film screenings, press conferences, panel discussions, audience Q & A participation, and parties. The period from the middle to the close of the event is infinitely more calm.

Many of my TIFF choices were considered major entries by the festival’s programmers and by members of the media. I’ve already reviewed the now-opened “Judy,” which is well-worth seeing. 

I also saw “Seberg,” with Kristin Stewart as celebrated actress Jean Seberg, and her 1960s support of the Black Panthers political group; Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson as lighthouse keepers in the moodily atmospheric black and white chiller “The Lighthouse;” and “Pain And Glory,” a fictional memory piece, which is directed by Spain’s great Pedro Almodovar, about his life in movies. My reviews when they open.

One inescapable aspect of festival fever are autograph seekers and the selfie-obsessed. They’re a cadre of devoted people willing to stand three and four deep for hours at stage doors and hotel entrances as they eagerly await glimpses of their favorite stars. They can sometimes seem a little bit nutty and over-the-top. All of them bring a supercharged dose of energy to premieres as they wait for a possible pose for a picture, or a Sharpie scribble in their autograph book or on a poster or photograph.

There was fan frenzy at a Monday night Gala showing of “Joker” at the 2,630-seat Roy Thomson Hall, a fine arts concert venue. Not to be outdone, more than 500 members of the press and industry jammed two separate theaters the next day at the Scotiabank complex to be able to see the film at noon screenings on Tuesday. I saw it at the Gala.

"Joker" is an origin movie featuring the colorful Batman nemesis, and merry prankster, known as The Joker. Hollywood has turned him into something more disturbing and malevolent.

Joaquin Phoenix’s fevered, often-demented performance as Joker is what's driving overzealous fans into utter apoplexy. Interestingly, these fans were salivating months ago when nobody had seen the movie. That's the blight of social media.

Set in a grimy, garbage-strewn Gotham City in 1981 (Brian De Palma’s “Blow Out” is on a movie theater marque), “Joker” is about a mentally disturbed man named Arthur Fleck. He has compulsions that are onerous burdens to his psyche, fixations generated partly by a obsessive relationship with his elderly mother. He lives with her. As with many other movies, practicing a narrative form of pop-psychology are director Todd Phillips and his co-screenwriter Scott Silver.

Formerly institutionalized, Fleck is a clown-for-hire, a lonely soul without much of a future. A social worker controls his medication. He entertains sick kids in a hospital, once carrying a gun another clown has given him. He washes his mom’s hair during her bath time. Kids rob a sign he holds advertising a store. He clomps after them comically. 

Arthur’s world is a horror-show of urban sounds colors, and, he believes, menacing characters, some of whom deserve retribution. The movie’s manic violence arrives briskly and continues brutally. Is there any respite in a life that’s spiraling out-of-control? Arthur thinks he’s created a friendship with a single mother (Zazie Beetz) who lives in his apartment building. 

“Joker” is a movie about loneliness, but it’s too shallow to be meaningful. We see what Arthur has become – a failed entertainer – but Phillips and Silver have no interest in how he can rid himself of the clutter that corrupts his existence. They’re only interested in chaos; however, they don’t elevate the chaos into a meaningful narrative, they pander to the audience with it. 

The film owes a big debt of gratitude to director Martin Scorsese. Depending on your point-of-view, it either pays homage to, or cribs, borrows, or outright steals from two Scorsese movies starring Robert De Niro. 

The obsessed loner and gritty atmosphere of “Taxi Driver” are two essential elements of “Joker.” Arthur’s obsession with a television talk show host he thinks understands him is lifted right from “The King Of Comedy,” which stars De Niro as a delusional failed comedian.  

Other major cinematic references are “White Heat” in which James Cagney’s criminal, who loves his mother, strives to be respected and remembered, and “The French Connection” – subway and automobile madness. And, of course, there’s “Psycho,” in which “a boy’s best friend is his mother.”

“Joker” is moderately good. Phoenix’s bravura performance keeps it from feeling like empty calories. The busy, helter-skelter movement of people and modes of transportation occasionally make it fun to watch, but “Joker” is not an overachiever. It ultimately comes up lacking a vital something special.

There may be debates about the film celebrating violence committed by loners and influencing some elements of society to act out their rabid fantasies. This is an age-old argument, and one with which I don’t agree. 

Some have asked: “Is this really a picture worthy of a prestigious film festival?” The answer is simple: Yes it is.  

Michael Calleri reviews films for the Niagara Gazette. Contact him at moviecolumn@gmail.com.

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