Joker’s to the Right

Hope and Despair at the Toronto International Film Festival

Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right. Just as the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) hit its stride, Pennywise the Clown goosed the horror sequel It: Chapter Two to a $91 million opening weekend and Todd Phillips’ bleak incel anthem Joker improbably nabbed the top prize at the Venice Film Festival. This fall, movie theaters will make coulrophobes of us all. Laughter has never felt so harrowing.

More tellingly, as TIFF wrapped up this past weekend, it gave the bellwether People’s Choice Award to Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit, a self-declared “anti-hate satire” co-starring the director himself as history’s most murderous jackass, Adolf Hitler.

Jojo Rabbit’s acclaim is all the more significant considering that last year’s winner, Green Book, eventually landed the Best Picture Oscar. So, too, did Twelve Years a Slave, The King’s Speech, and Slumdog Millionaire. And if other TIFF winners didn’t get Best Picture, they at least got nominated, like La La Land, Room, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and The Imitation Game. Those Canucks have an uncanny sense of what Academy voters like. Don’t be surprised if the Third Reich gets shout-outs at the Dolby Theater next February.

Silly Rabbit

 

“It’s a love letter to mothers,” said Taika Waititi after Jojo Rabbit debuted to rapturous applause. The unlikely crowd-pleaser deftly mixes laughs and tears as a Swastika-happy boy (Roman Griffin Davis) navigates the final years of Nazi Germany with the wise love of a steely, secretly subversive single mother (Scarlett Johansson) despite prickly guidance from an imaginary version of der Führer. “I want a dad, and my idol is a buffoon, so I’ll mix the two,” explained Waititi, himself the product of a single-mom home.

Profane, touching, absurd, and weirdly giddy, Jojo Rabbit feels like a millennial version of The Great Dictator. It’s just distant enough from the horrors of World War II to be ironically blithe, but also unsettled enough to reflect anxiety about today’s rising tide of nationalism. “Little by little, there were small changes,” reminded Waititi about fascism’s ascent in 1933 Germany. “And it got bigger and bigger until it was too late. It’s important to tell these stories again and again in new, inventive ways.”

Screen Gems

Elect a clown, expect a circus. The Trump Era has never felt so palpably expressed on the silver screen in all its demented, deranged, feverish, psychopathic glory. Insanity, inanity, and an unquenchable thirst for adrenaline-rush self-destruction are fueling some of the most provocative films this year. The line between comedy and tragedy has never been more blurred.

No surprise, then, to find comedian Adam Sandler in Josh and Benny Safdie’s gonzo drama Uncut Gems, an electric portrait of bad choices and sheer, brazen, reckless defiance. He’s agita personified. And watching it is as riveting as it is enervating. The SNL alum and lowbrow box-office rainmaker plays Howard Ratner, a slimy Diamond District merchant in the spring of 2012 who gets his hands on a rare million-dollar opal from an Ethiopian mine. Gambling debts make him thirsty for a big payoff, so when Celtics superstar Kevin Garnett visits his store and convinces himself that the raw gemstone has mystical powers, Howard senses a sweaty opportunity to get those thuggish loan sharks off his back.

A clever scheme turns Howard’s travails into a shrewd against-all-odds victory, right? Not quite. Uncut Gems is two hours of nerve-jolting high anxiety, as Howard leapfrogs from one mess into another, just winging it as personal and professional ruin chronically loom. The Safdies’ story is so absolutely unpredictable that the climax will leave you stunned. Even the cast members agreed. “That ending was crazy, man,” said Lakeith Stanfield after seeing the film for the first time at the premiere. “I was like, whaaaat?”

Cute As the Dickens

 

More shocking: potty-mouthed Veep creator Armando Iannucci followed up his brilliantly bleak comedy The Death of Stalin with a profanity-free Dickens adaptation for Disney. The Personal History of David Copperfield stars Dev Patel as a South Asian version of the classic literary character, riding out a string of fortunes and misfortunes in his famously peripatetic life. And in this telling, Copperfield’s universe proudly features colorblind casting, which gives the famously Anglo stories a far more modern twist. “The themes in it are so fresh and contemporary,” said Iannucci during an audience Q&A. “It’s the humanity. We’re all different, but we’re all the same. It’s about community.”

When someone asked him about his lack of salty quips, Iannucci said that his previous political satires required it. “Those are stories about worlds where people swear a lot,” he explained. “And it’s becoming increasingly obvious why: because we’re fucked.” David Copperfield is his corrective, a story where desperate people survive only by learning how to live together. “If we don’t do that, then we’re going to be double-fucked,” he said. “And I would like to un-fuck you.”

Glimpses of redemption dotted TIFF, like Rian Johnson’s whodunnit hoot Knives Out, a giddy restoration of the murder mystery that uses inherited wealth and white privilege as the corroded fulcrum for his twisty, pro-immigrant thriller. Or Marielle Heller’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, starring Tom Hanks as venerated children’s TV host Fred Rogers whose plucky profundities transform the life of a deeply cynical journalist.

There were even two-handers like The Two Popes, an affectionate chronicle of the unlikely friendship between outgoing conservative Pope Benedict XVI (Anthony Hopkins) and the future liberal Pope Francis (Jonathan Pryce). Or Noah Bambauch’s lacerating but devastatingly empathetic dissection of a couple’s bicoastal divorce, with Scarlett Johannson and Adam Driver delivering career-best performances. If these people can find common ground despite wildly different worldviews, then there’s got to be hope for the world.

And Now the End is Near

Unless, of course, that world has a Joker. Todd Phillips’ gangrenous take on Batman’s arch-villain arrived at TIFF with a tsunami of thought pieces out of Venice, not to mention the coveted Golden Lion. Other recent Venice winners: Academy Award recipients Roma and The Shape of Water. And Joaquin Phoenix’s burn-it-all-down portrayal of the psychopath with the hyena laugh is convincingly chilling. TIFF even gave an acting award to Phoenix for his body of work. So, yes, Joker is now one of Oscar’s front-runners.

That’s a deeply unsettling thought. And no, not because it’s a comic book movie. The Dark Knight and Black Panther have clearly proven that superheroes deserve acclaim. But what Phillips and Phoenix have created has a dark energy unlike any in a major Hollywood release. The film is reflecting and amplifying a palpable rage in this world, a frustration that builds and builds until it explodes with a woozy, stomach-churning intensity. Yes, it pays homage to Scorsese masterworks like Taxi Driver and King of Comedy, evoking those films’ urban rot and mental meltdown. But Joker isn’t looking for understanding, nor does it offer any sense of redemption. It wants oblivion. And if the film becomes a zeitgeist hit, then Iannucci might be absolutely right. We’re all double-fucked. No joke.

Stephen Garrett

Stephen Garrett is the former film editor of 'Time Out New York’ and has written about the movie industry for more than 20 years. He is also the founder of Jump Cut, a marketing company that creates trailers and posters for independent, foreign-language, and documentary films.

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