Best known for her role as Donald Glover’s on-and-off-again girlfriend Vanessa in FX Networks’ Golden Globe-winning series “Atlanta,” Zazie Beetz is a German-born, Emmy Award-nominated actress who stars in “Joker,” a film about the infamous DC villain from the Batman comic books and movies.
In this carefully crafted origin story, which is set to break an opening record for studio Warner Bros., we get to see how this DC villain, known as Arthur Fleck, struggled to find his way in Gotham’s fractured society becoming an embittered and dangerously evil person and it’s a brilliant backstory on Joker’s meteoric rise that evokes empathy, compassion and yet repulsion for Batman’s notoriously evil nemesis.
Director Todd Phillips delves into this detailed character study portraying Joker, whose real name is Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), as a socially awkward and increasingly desperate man living with his frail narcissistic mother Penny (Frances Conroy).
Arthur, we learn is an aspiring comedian who tries his hand as a stand-up comic, but finds the joke always seems to be on him. With several medical conditions that require a daily dosage of medications, he has a day job as a clown for-hire at a company called Ha-Ha’s. He struggles to be seen and is painfully aware that he’s invisible to most, even to his mother, who still calls him “Happy,” though he never has been.
Penny spends her days writing pleading letters to her former boss, mayoral candidate Thomas Wayne, for financial assistance, while Arthur spends his days watching the late-night talk show “Live with Murray Franklin” and dreaming of earning a spot on the program. Caught in a cyclical existence between apathy and cruelty and, ultimately, betrayal, Arthur makes one bad decision after another which results in a chain reaction of escalating events in this gritty character study.
Robert De Niro plays the TV host Murray Franklin; the closest thing Arthur has to a hero and is an amalgam of real-life past hosts from Joe Franklin to Johnny Carson. Beetz, who also has a recurring role as Noelle in Joe Swanberg’s “Easy,” for Netflix, plays the single mom of a five-year-old girl who lives in the rundown apartment down the hall from Arthur. She’s raising her child on her own and can see that he has difficulty interacting with people and seems somewhat insecure, so she tolerates him and is nice, and she smiles at Arthur like you do with any neighbor.
For Beetz, it’s a project she loved, and she enjoyed working with Phoenix. “I’ve been a really huge fan of Joaquin’s work for a long time and I think he’s one of the best actors of this generation.”
Brett Cullen stars as mayoral candidate Thomas Wayne, a lone father figure Arthur attempts to connect with while Brian Tyree Henry rounds off the cast as a hospital clerk who works at a mental institution.
It’s a bold and complex movie about a fictional character seen fleetingly in the Batman films and Phillips’ portrayal is commendable as he expertly peels the layers off this complicated character who after years of ridicule and alienation from Gotham society finally seeks revenge on his tormentors.
With a two-hour plus running time, “Joker” is an exceedingly long film, but it’s engaging to watch three-time Oscar nominee Joaquin Phoenix’s hypnotically raw performance of Arthur Fleck in this origin story, and it’s a performance which is sure to net him yet another Oscar nomination.
By Samantha Ofole-Prince/Photos courtesy of Warner Bros.