Uncut Gems Adam Sandler CR: A24 Joker Joaquin Phoenix CR: Niko Tavernise/Warner Bros.

Joaquin Phoenix and Adam Sandler give great performances in grisly movies. Can either win the Oscar?

Their polarizing films were the talk of the fall film festivals this past holiday weekend — for better and for worse.
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Fall festival season already has moviegoers a little short of breath. In the mountains of Telluride, it's the altitude; across the Atlantic in Venice, blame Joker. The dark and incendiary take on the Batman villain sucked up so much of the lido's oxygen this past holiday weekend that it's a wonder the competition has several days left. Overnight, the film received plaudits for changing comic book movies forever; transformed the reputation of its director, Todd Phillips, previously best known for helming the Hangover trilogy; and vaulted star Joaquin Phoenix to the fore of this Oscar cycle's Best Actor conversation.

As to how Joker (out Oct. 4) made audiences feel? That's a far murkier picture. Reports out of Venice confirm the immediate post-premiere response was rapturous, but as festivalgoers know, an eight-minute standing ovation hardly tells the whole story. Phillips makes his viewer squirm in his prescient telling of a disaffected white man turning to mass violence in an American city. Phoenix's Joker — or Arthur, as he's introduced here — convincingly devolves into deranged, vengeful hysteria, the real-world echoes disquieting and at times unbearable. That Phillips imbues his realistic villain origin story with seeming sympathetic pleas and a slick cinematic pull muddies its message — not to mention its ethics.

Phoenix, who lost more than 50 pounds for the role, is receiving raves nearly across the board; further, he's distinctive enough in Joker to avoid unfavorable comparisons to Heath Ledger's soaring turn in The Dark Knight. Yet Phoenix, unlike Ledger, is the leading man here. Joker may be the most sophisticated comic book movie to land since Christopher Nolan's lauded Batman film, but it'll likely draw a more mixed critical and audience reception, and need to weather controversies over its ideology and timing. The film bears greater aesthetic and structural resemblance to a trio of Oscar-less Martin Scorsese-Robert De Niro collaborations — Taxi Driver, Mean Streets, and The King of Comedy — that exude a similar sense of unease.

Whereas the Emmys love their difficult men — the Tony Sopranos, the Don Drapers, the Walter Whites — the Oscars prefer rewarding heroic portraits; recent Best Actor-winning roles include everyone from Winston Churchill to Stephen Hawking to Abraham Lincoln. Then there are the redemptive arcs of movies like Crazy Heart and Dallas Buyers Club, for which Jeff Bridges and Matthew McConaughey went all the way. The relatively few antagonistic portrayals that win over Academy voters court admiration and horror over empathy and familiarity. Think Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood. Forest Whitaker in The Last King of Scotland. And sure, Ledger in The Dark Knight, too. But Phoenix's Joker occupies a more discomfiting space.


Fascinatingly, Joker wasn't the only festival launch over the weekend to inspire some combination of thunderous applause, vivid revulsion, awards chatter, and Scorsese comparisons. As EW's Leah Greenblatt reported from Telluride, many attendees literally walked out of the premiere screening of Uncut Gems (out Dec. 13), the latest arty thriller from indie darlings Josh and Benny Safdie (Good Time). The Mean Streets-esque character study — executive-produced, in fact, by Scorsese himself — blasts an involving score and overlaps dialogue with nasty rapidity. Consensus indicates, though, that at the film's center is Adam Sandler's best performance ever. He plays an impulsive, loudmouth New York jeweler with a serious gambling problem; he's alternately loathsome and tragic as the film tracks his unhinged, increasingly pathetic daily routine.

Back in 2014, Sandler waded into dramatic film only to sink in a pair of epic misfires, Tom McCarthy's The Cobbler and Jason Reitman's Men, Women, and Children (easily the worst films of both directors' careers); he fared better in 2017, when Noah Baumbach pitted him against Ben Stiller in The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected). But still: This is a long time coming, more than 15 years after Punch Drunk Love. Sandler's case is filled with contradictions. Will the Academy's embrace of the comic-goes-serious variety — just last year we had Melissa McCarthy (Can You Ever Forgive Me?) — outweigh their resistance to the Safdies' brand of manic arthouse filmmaking? Just how far can Sandler ride the comeback narrative when he's playing someone so contemptible?

It's worth noting that the Best Actor race fleshed out considerably beyond Phoenix and Sandler these past few days. Adam Driver will surely be in the thick of it through to Oscar night for his devastating work in Baumbach's Marriage Story; Christian Bale and Jonathan Pryce will jockey for nods for Ford v Ferrari and The Two Popes, respectively. But out of the Venice-Telluride haze, two acclaimed portrayals of terrible men remain the dominant story. This is the way it's always been — the inevitable gravitating toward the biggest, ugliest transformations. But there's something about their place in this moment in time, too, amid the troubling realities of masculinity and violence and desperation playing out across newsfeeds every day, for us to helplessly look on. At least in this game of campaigning and prognosticating, we get some kind of vote.

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