I approached Joker (now available for streaming and on DVD) with a fair measure of trepidation. The film, a rethought origin story of one of Batman’s most notorious villains, has garnered 11 Oscar nominations, and its titular star, Joaquin Phoenix, has already won Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild awards and remains an Oscar favorite. Box office was robust, and the critics were split: the movie won the top prize at the Venice Film Festival (Europeans are often awed when Hollywood movies give off an arty air) and was hailed as brilliant by some and exploitative of mental illness by others. In truth, it’s more simplistic than nasty, but we’ll get to that. Joker is the first Batman movie to get an R rating, and rightly so: it’s more of a horror movie than a comic-book adventure.
Set in 1981, the movie posits Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) as a middle-aged loser living with his mother (Frances Conroy), both of them previously institutionalized and on heavy meds. They’re in Gotham, which looks an awful lot like the tawdry ’70s New York of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. Indeed, much of the film is an ode to Scorsese, from The King of Comedy to Shutter Island. Fleck is struggling to become a standup comedian and idolizes talk-show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), a low-rent version of Johnny Carson. But despite some lovely acting by a creepily malnourished Phoenix and company; a gritty production; and a menacing, dissonant score by Icelandic composer Hildur Gudnadóttir, the script is one-note: attacking, humiliating, and emotionally subverting Fleck every which way but loose. It’s impossible not to pity him and to “understand” his madness — the deck is absurdly stacked against him, undermining any moral complexity the film may have. It pales in comparison to Paul Schrader’s script for Taxi Driver, which it pilfers, and to Scorsese’s consummate visual and theatrical grace.
I won’t relay how things go awry for Fleck and for Gotham, but suffice it to say that the bloodletting and brutality are overhyped. It’s more about one’s expectations. The artiness is more mimicked than real; the director, Todd Phillips, is known for crappy commercial Hollywood flicks and the hugely successful Hangover series. Phoenix’s Joker is richer than Jack Nicholson’s or Cesar Romero’s, but it’s a poor cousin of Heath Ledger’s.
Which brings me to Scorsese’s own Oscar contender, The Irishman, starring De Niro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci, a three-and-a-half-hour big-budget epic about organized crime and Jimmy Hoffa, the corrupt teamsters labor leader who disappeared in 1975 in a presumed assassination. The movie was produced by Netflix, got a perfunctory release in theaters, and is now streaming online. There’s been much discussion of the CGI de-aging of the leads in the film in chronologically earlier scenes, and although the effects look a little weird at times, they mostly work fine, though probably no better than heavy makeup would have done on its own.
De Niro plays Frank Sheeran, the titular hit man who narrates the film with an extended confession to his offing Hoffa (played by Pacino) and many other thugs. Pesci plays a soft-spoken mafia kingpin and Sheeran’s protector, and he and De Niro are ineffably good. Pacino is atypically restrained. The screenplay by Steve Zaillian is based on Sheeran’s true-life testimony and the nonfiction book I Heard You Paint Houses, by Charles Brandt, a former prosecutor and defense attorney. Scorsese directs it beautifully, but the film is a protracted elegy for an era that is long gone, a criminal underworld that has largely been exposed and replaced, and a code of conduct that has gone the way of the samurai. It lacks the operatic passion of Scorsese’s earlier crime epics, notably Goodfellas and Casino. The Irishman is an old man’s movie, more regretful than tragic.
Netflix has another Oscar contender, Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, which also got a brief release in theaters before streaming online. The title of the movie is ironic, because it’s really the story of a divorce — between an experimental New York theater director, Charlie (Adam Driver), and a television actress, Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), with their young son, Henry (Azhy Robertson), caught in the middle. The breakup starts more or less amicably, with Nicole moving to California for a job and taking Henry with her. There she finds a super-slick lawyer (Laura Dern), forcing Charlie to get one, too (first Ray Liotta, then Alan Alda). That’s when things start to get ugly.
The film is partly autobiographical for Baumbach in that it’s based on his divorce from actress Jennifer Jason Leigh. And it’s not the first time he’s chronicled a breakup: the film that largely launched his career, The Squid and the Whale, is about the divorce of his parents. He is a master of the painfully awkward moment, and of depicting self-centered and obnoxious characters: Jeff Bridges’ in The Squid and the Whale; Nicole Kidman’s in Margot at the Wedding; Ben Stiller’s in Greenberg. Humorously neurotic oddballs populate his movies, and in Marriage Story, for example, Julie Hagerty as Nicole’s mom is a scream. But there’s a clown’s sadness to Baumbach’s work, and Marriage Story is sometimes bittersweet, sometimes heartbreaking.
All the performers are indelible. People will debate the particulars of who is to blame for the divorce, but Driver and Johansson are both riveting to watch. Dern, who looks like a shoo-in for every supporting actress award there is — and there are many — is splendid, and it’s nice to see her play savvy and tough instead of vulnerable and victimized.
I personally related to the bourgeois foibles of these characters, in ways that I couldn’t with a nutcase like the Joker or the goombahs in The Irishman. Other viewers may have differing reactions. But the artistry on display is undeniable.