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TIFF 2019: Joker, Uncut Gems

The world of film festivals allows for multiple writers at a site like ours to see the same film, offering a “second take” dynamic. I was interested to see what I could add to the conversation already started by the excellent pieces by Glenn Kenny and Tomris Laffly posted on this site from Venice and Telluride, respectively, about two of the most-buzzed films of the fest circuit. What’s interesting is how much I ended up agreeing with both of them on two films, at least one of which is adding up to be this year’s most divisive.

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Let’s start there. Todd PhillipsJokeruses issues and themes like mental illness, social isolation, and trauma like a clown uses makeup. It slathers them on in a way that feels superficial and unearned. I think Phillips knows this. Having had a chance to roll it over in my head for a few days, I’m increasingly convinced that Phillips wouldn’t argue that “Joker” is saying anything deep about mental illness, and the accusation that his film is a hollow provocation might actually be met with a “Yeah, that’s the point” from the director. He’s using concepts explored in films he loves like “Taxi Driver” and “The King of Comedy” like how a lot of people approach these films: two-dimensionally. His take on Travis Bickle’s frustrated nihilism is no deeper than the poster of De Niro interrogating himself in the mirror hanging on a dorm room wall. And that creates a fascinating conundrum at the heart of the “Joker” conversation. Is this is a film made by someone aiming for something deep and missing, or someone very purposefully skimming the surface? And does it matter in the end? Either way, “Joker” is an angry, vicious, shallow piece of work that may have a complex performance in its center but is so simple in every other way that it ultimately leaves a bad taste in your mouth.

From his first appearance, Joaquin Phoenix is all-in on a representation of the man who would become a legendary comic book villain as a mentally unhinged loner. A clown for hire, Arthur Fleck has little going on in his life, and even his therapy sessions end in disagreements. He suffers a neurological disorder, which means he bursts into uncomfortable laughter when he’s uncomfortable, and he’s a constant target of bullying in the troubled city of Gotham. His mother regularly tries to contact the wealthy Thomas Wayne (father of Bruce, of course) for help, but these people have been left behind, and a series of events is about to propel Arthur into the violent spotlight. Meanwhile, his obsession with a talk-show host played by Robert De Niro grows along with his vigilante adrenaline.

What I’ll remember most about Phoenix’s performance is its physicality. He contorts his arms and face in ways he hasn’t really before, capturing a man who looks like he’s uncomfortable in his own skin. Phoenix commits to every moment of “Joker,” but it creates a constant push-and-pull between performer and production. What we’re supposed to take away from Fleck’s transformation is never clear and sometimes incredibly frustrating, and it’s here where fans and critics of the film will divide. For example, when Fleck triumphantly marches down the stairs to Gary Glitter, is Phillips commenting on how that song has been used to cheer on violent athletes over the years, challenging people who would consider using a Glitter song at this point controversial, or does he just think it sounds cool? My gut says Option C. Fans will argue Option A or B, finding meaning in the excess that I'm just not convinced is really there. For me, “Joker” somehow takes itself deadly seriously but also feels distinctly like it’s playing a joke on critics and audiences who want to read anything deeper into it. I can understand some appreciating “Joker” as a poke in the eye to any sort of critical establishment, but when people start to dissect the “deeper meaning” in this disappointing endeavor, that’s when I’m gonna send in the clowns.

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Much more satisfying is another fest darling about a man on the edge of sanity himself, Josh & Benny Safdie’s “Uncut Gems,” featuring career-best work by Adam Sandler. The comedian has played characters before who have butted up against their own limitations, but never with such dramatic, terrifying urgency as in this story, one that recalls his excellent work in “Punch-Drunk Love.” The Safdies have made an adrenaline-fueled, very­ New York story about a man constantly trying to climb his way out of the deep hole he’s dug for himself but only ends up piling more dirt on his own head. Sandler is fearless and fascinating in one of the best films of the year.

Sandler plays Howard Ratner, a Jewish jeweler in New York who has bet it all on a rare opal that he’s imported from Ethiopia and is preparing to sell. Ratner is the kind of bling salesman who encounters celebrities every now and then, so it’s not that surprising when his business partner Damany (a fantastic Lakeith Stanfield) brings in Kevin Garnett (playing himself, and playing him very well) to the store. Ratner shows Garnett the rock and the Boston Celtic, nearby for the 2012 Conference Finals against the Sixers, wants it. Bad. Before the auction that's scheduled to sell it, Garnett offers to take it for good luck for tonight’s game. And, from there, chaos basically ensues.

There’s way more going on in Ratner’s life than just a life-changing sale that could fall apart because of a professional NBA player. He also owes some very tough guys a lot of money, has a deep gambling addiction, and is juggling a girlfriend (Julia Fox) and a family life with a wife played by Idina Menzel. Sandler brings his jittery energy to a man who feels like he is constantly on the edge of massive success or potentially lethal failure. His existence is that of a thrown basketball, bouncing off the rim and hanging in mid-air before it either sinks or rebounds back into the chaos of life. The Safdies start their film with the volume at 11 and never turn it down, propelling viewers through their violent, profanity-laden intensity for over two hours. There are not a lot of performers who could ride that kind of energy, but Sandler is up to the challenge. Any argument remaining about Sandler's ability as an actor should finally end here.  

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