If there is a meaningful difference between performing and acting, Joaquin Phoenix surely exemplifies the former here, creepily contorting as the Clown Prince of Crime in Todd Phillips’ timely, toxic take on the Making of a Murdering Madman. (Timely because it seeks to tap into festering resentment on the part of the have-nots, toxic because it has those have-nots rallying behind a guy who shoots three douchebros on the subway. True, they were harassing a woman and assaulting the shooter, but while the audience knows that, the onscreen Army of Clowns does not.) Phoenix begins the film as Arthur Fleck, a sweet soul so pummeled by life that his chest is actually concave, a dutiful son who somehow provides for himself and his addled mother by clowning. He’d like to be a comedian, but as Mom reminds him, “Don’t you have to actually be funny for that?” Still, no harm in fantasizing, and while you’re at it, why not dream up a sympathetic neighbor lady who gets your vibe? (The lady is real enough; the relationship is…questionable.) But reality has a way of stepping in and stomping down on Arthur; Evelyn Waugh’s phrase “a blow upon the bruise” comes to mind as disaster follows discovery follows deception follows disaster… you get the idea. But here’s the funny part: the worse things get for poor Arthur, the straighter he stands, until finally, even his mental condition of laughing mirthlessly in stressful situations drops away. Good thing he stopped taking those meds that were denied him by an unfeeling system! One weirdly unbelievable ending is followed by another, this one not quite as unbelievable, but decidedly more disturbing — a little like the old Aristocrats joke. I endured that for this — ha ha? (2019) — Matthew Lickona
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