The world is falling apart, and this fall, the movies are all over it. Extracting trends from new releases often amounts to a fool’s errand, since movies come out at disparate moments for a range of reasons. This year, however, a collection of anxieties reverberate in many of the notable movies launching at the Toronto International Film Festival, and together they make the alarming case that America is losing its mind.
Consider the saga of “Joker.” Director Todd Phillips has elicited curious reactions for transforming the Batman supervillain into a mentally ill loner, in part because few could have predicted such a brooding psychological thriller from the director of “The Hangover.” But in its own disturbing fashion, “Joker” actually functions as a savage media satire about delusions of grandeur driven by a divisive climate that both empowers and mocks extremist views.
With a spindly Joaquin Phoenix at its center, Phillips crafts a vivid exploration of the way one man goes mad through his relationship to television and desire for fame. Yet rather than becoming the dapper comedian of his fantasies, the depressed clown becomes an accidental viral celebrity after his standup routine goes awry. Being the butt of jokes on local television turns him into a seething, anarchic maniac who delights at causing chaos. Despite the ‘70s backdrop, it’s no stretch to argue that “Joker” extrapolates the genesis of internet trolls from the inside out.
“Everybody’s awful these days,” Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck tells his shrink. “It’s enough to make you go crazy.” The very existence of a stern, urgent comic-book movie generating attention this season around the plight of a bad guy speaks volumes about these upside-down times, when real-life villains and crude instigators seem more emboldened than ever to step into the spotlight.
“Joker” will elicit many compelling arguments about the morality of hovering inside its lead character’s perspective, even pitying his maniacal state. That debate has no clean solution, but it’s a more sophisticated provocation than “Jojo Rabbit,” Taika Waititi’s so-called “anti-hate satire” about a confused Nazi child in WWII-era Germany who dreams up Hitler as his imaginary friend. Waititi made a well-intentioned attempt to answer the resurgence of bigotry and hate groups around the world with a charming look at what it takes to break free of those views.
However, the movie inadvertently illustrates the vanity of that mission. By relegating a sinister ideology to silly punchlines, it falls short of interrogating the disturbing manner in which real people come to harbor dangerous thoughts. It’s the anti-“Joker,” though both movies provide a window into the challenges of confronting fanatical views while staying sane.
America’s not just arguing itself into a hole; it’s grasping to survive economic uncertainty, as it reels from the recession a decade ago and braces for the prospect of another around the corner. Lorene Scafaria’s explosive “Hustlers” encapsulates the financial desperation that fuels reckless schemes. The true story of New York strippers who drugged and robbed the men they drew into their web, the movie offers a precise look at how an eager young woman like Dawn (Constance Wu) can become sufficiently despondent to join forces with someone like Ramona (a fierce Jennifer Lopez) in a dangerous scheme that inevitably catches the attention of the law. Asked to explain herself when a probing journalist (Julia Stiles) confronts her, Ramona puts the entire narrative in the broader context it deserves: “This whole country is a strip club.” By the time that blunt assessment has arrived, “Hustlers” has earned it.
On the other hand, maybe it’s a jewelry store. That’s where Howard (Adam Sandler at his agitated best) runs a perilous operation at the center of the Safdie brothers’ riveting thriller “Uncut Gems.” Howard’s pileup of schemes finds him attempting to sell a rare jewel to Celtics player Kevin Garnett while pawning off items to bet on an upcoming game. It’s only a matter of time before the entire ludicrous plan comes crashing down. As with “Hustlers,” New York City provides the backdrop of affluence and competitive instincts that drive wayward characters to set themselves up to fail.
That’s also the centerpiece of “Bad Education” (a Toronto premiere still searching for distribution), which finds a note-perfect Hugh Jackman playing the real-life Long Island school superintendent who fleeced the Roslyn school district of more than $2 million along with his assistant (Alison Janney). The operatic black comedy echoes “Hustlers” in the way it maps out the steps that lead someone to justify decisions to break the law for their own personal gain. It’s a punchline that resonates with bitter truths.
Even the more commercial crowdpleasers at TIFF dip into this arena. Rian Johnson’s clever and acerbic whodunit “Knives Out” revolves around an obnoxious wealthy family at each other’s throats in the aftermath of the patriarch (Christopher Plummer) suddenly dying by his own hand. Or so it seems. With the arrival of inquisitive investigator Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig with a hilarious Kentucky foghorn accent), the movie maps out the constant infighting and self-absorption that has made the rich household into such an unappealing vortex. No wonder the deceased man preferred the company of his South American caregiver Marta (Ana de Armas), who turns out to be the real star of this all-star ensemble (Jamie Lee Curtis, Chris Evans, and Michael Shannon also star as contemptible relatives).
As “Knives Out” careens toward its outrageous resolution (and a very satisfying payoff), Marta must navigate the tribalism and resentment of a family that takes her presence in their lives for granted. It’s a welcome kick in the shins to the Trump Administration’s xenophobic standards, and a wry takedown of one-percenters who deserve the reminder that they’re not alone in this world, and shouldn’t be running it.
The fall season isn’t exclusively fixated on unsolved problems. In “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” director Marielle Heller’s nuanced drama follows a dyspeptic Esquire journalist (Matthew Rhys) learning to confront his emotions after being assigned to interview amiable children’s TV host Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks). Heller mines a surprising degree of sensitivity and intellectual depth from this schmaltzy material by structuring the entire movie as a make-believe episode of “Mister Roger’s Neighborhood.” While “Jojo” may be the anti-“Joker,” Mister Rogers provides the ultimate antidote to his craziness by presenting the potential to avoid a downward cycle of rage through positivity. The world today may not deserve this gentle soul, but his lessons still resonate. Anyone who feels like they need a shower after “Joker” will find it in Heller’s warm embrace.
Or they’ll turn to “Just Mercy,” Destin Daniel Cretton’s serviceable courtroom drama about the passionate Harvard grad (Michael B. Jordan, in top form) who fights to exonerate an innocent Alabama black man (Jamie Foxx) on death row. “Just Mercy” follows some familiar patterns and reduces much of its drama to didactic monologues.
But it’s a timely window into the necessity of perseverance when chipping away at a broken justice system, and in that regard, not all that thematically dissimilar from Noah Baumbach’s “Marriage Story.” The filmmaker’s emotional chronicle of a successful creative couple (Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson) contending with a nasty divorce magnifies the way cold legalese shrouds them from the nuanced hardships pulling them apart. Both “Just Mercy” and “Marriage Story” search for the importance of humanity in a justice system engineered to ignore it. Compared to some other movies making the rounds this fall, they offer some measure of hope. But as the conversations around these new releases continue to evolve, optimism is going to be hard to come by.