starring Joaquin Phoenix, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy, Robert De Niro
written by Todd Phillips & Scott Silver
directed by Todd Phillips
by Bill Chambers Two moments that soar: in the one, Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), having just shed the last vestments of propriety, dons the complete outfit of his alter ego Joker--the green hair, the white face, the purple suit--for the first time and does an impromptu dance to Gary Glitter's stadium staple "Rock and Roll Part 2" on an empty stairway in Gotham City. In the other, stand-up comic Joker achieves his dream of guesting on "The Murray Franklin Show". The former is great because the music is at once non-diegetic and clearly prodding Joker; it's one of the few times we're indisputably inside his head, and, naturally, he's soundtracked his grand entrance like he's the star pitcher coming out to wow the crowd in the sixth inning. (Phoenix is arguably the first actor since Cesar Romero to accept that Joker isn't just a psychopath, he's also a complete dork.) The latter distinctly reminded me of Phoenix's standoffish appearance on Letterman while he was in the throes of shooting the mockumentary I'm Still Here, but the reason the sequence works is that it's legitimately suspenseful watching Robert De Niro's Murray Franklin harangue Joker on live television, stoking a burning fuse. De Niro's presence is of course a nod to Martin Scorsese's The King of Comedy, in which he's an aspiring comedian so desperate to do his act on "The Jerry Langford Show" that he stalks and eventually kidnaps the titular Jerry (Jerry Lewis). Despite that legacy casting, a particularly baleful De Niro is morbidly implausible as a talk-show host of legend, yet his proto-Morton Downey Jr. is defensible in that it looks ahead to the rise of today's angry pundits. Unlike his ingratiating contemporaries (Johnny Carson, Merv Griffin, Jerry Langford)--period markers, including the cheesy glitz of "The Murray Franklin Show"'s set design, suggest the film takes place circa 1980--Murray seems to be jonesing for conflict. Incidentally, De Niro's head hasn't been this square since Midnight Run.