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‘Joker’ brings anarchy to awards season at Toronto Film Festival

Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck in “Joker”
Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck in “Joker.”
(Niko Tavernise/ Warner Bros. )

Todd Phillips’ nutso comic book origin story “Joker” reportedly received an eight-minute standing ovation when it premiered late last month at the Venice Film Festival, where it went on to win the Golden Lion prize for best film.

The response was decidedly less enthusiastic at its North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival on Tuesday, with the crowd in Roy Thomson Hall reserving most of its approval for actor Joaquin Phoenix’s live-wire turn as the title character.

The evening delivered back-to-back galas at the festival’s biggest venue with James Mangold’s race car drama “Ford v Ferrari” opening the bill. The movie, elevated by star turns from Christian Bale and Matt Damon, won a nice response from the audience, partly fueled by Bale himself, who was shown grinning and applauding heartily when the spotlight shown on the cast following the movie.

Bale and Phoenix are remarkably gifted and famously press-shy, preferring to let their work speak for them. That strategy has worked fine in the past, with Bale winning one Oscar (“The Fighter”) from four nominations and Phoenix earning three nominations.

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The last time Phoenix attended the Oscars was as a lead actor nominee for Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master,” a defining portrait of alienation that eclipses anything in “Joker.”

Certainly, for “Joker,” Phoenix gave everything he had — and after losing 52 pounds for the part, he had a lot less than he started with — and Phillips makes sure you’re aware of the effort. Phoenix spends much of the movie half-naked, often wearing just his BVDs, and if you don’t know the number of bones in his rib cage by the end of the film, you haven’t been paying attention.

Phillips introduced “Joker” by calling it a “slow burn.” The first hour of the movie is indeed an often interesting character study of Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck, a workaday clown and aspiring stand-up comedian who lives at home with his mother in a decaying Gotham overrun by garbage and “super rats.”

It’s possible that older academy members might connect with much of this material because, as Phillips puts it, it is “informed” by dark cinematic portraits of antiheroes from the 1970s and early ’80s, most specifically Martin Scorsese’s “King of Comedy” and “Taxi Driver.” If the kinship isn’t clear enough, Phillips cast Robert De Niro, the star of those two films, as a late night TV host. (De Niro’s would-be stand-up comedian in “King of Comedy” was fixated on a talk show host played by Jerry Lewis.)

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Zazie Beetz, Robert De Niro and Joaquin Phoenix attend a premiere for “Joker” on Sept. 9 at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Zazie Beetz, Robert De Niro and Joaquin Phoenix attend a premiere for “Joker” on Sept. 9 at the Toronto International Film Festival.
(Evan Agostini / Invision)

Here’s how De Niro put it at the low-key Q&A following the film: “I understood the connections, so I said, ‘Oh. OK.’ That was it.” (He’s hopefully saving his A-material for upcoming Scorsese mob epic “The Irishman,” in which he stars.)

Phoenix was given free rein; at the Q&A, both he and Phillips said the project’s appeal was the absence of rules. Phoenix dances and cackles maniacally from beginning to end, and, as the film moves to its shocking final act, Fleck perpetrates violent acts that are grotesque and unnerving.

Oscar voters in the actors branch love exertion, good news for Phoenix and Bale, too, who plays hotheaded, perfectionist race car driver Ken Miles in “Ford v Ferrari.” (Matt Damon has a lot of fun as automotive designer Carroll Shelby, but Bale has the flashier scenes.)

Of the two films, “Joker” will likely dominate the box office and cultural conversation, as it superficially touches on issues of class, mental illness and celebrity worship. Expect outrage and adulation and a fresh avalanche of think pieces once Phoenix secures his nomination.

Even if it isn’t as edgy as it thinks, the movie’s mere existence — and that Golden Lion win — throws a cherry bomb into the awards season. We’ll see how that cackle ages over the next five months.


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