‘C’mon C’mon’: Joaquin Phoenix drops the clown act, gets real

In thoughtful drama, Oscar winner gives a warm, subtle performance as a journalist getting to know his oddball nephew.

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Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix) takes nephew Jesse (Woody Norman) on the road with him in “C’mon C’mon.”

A24

When we last saw Joaquin Phoenix in the movies he was swinging for the fences and beyond in his Oscar-winning and polarizing performance in 2019’s “Joker,” and it’s difficult to imagine a more sweeping sway of the pendulum than Phoenix’s warm, layered, subtle work in “C’mon C’mon.” Playing Johnny, a middle-aged radio host who embarks on a uniquely American journey with his young nephew, Phoenix leaves the electric guitar and the amps backstage and delivers the equivalent of a quietly powerful, all-acoustic performance.

‘C’mon C’mon’

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A24 presents a film written and directed by Mike Mills. Rated R (for language). Running time: 108 minutes. Opens Wednesday at AMC River East and Landmark Century Centre.

Joker was something out of our nightmares — a grotesque monstrosity leaping from the pages of a dark graphic novel. Johnny is the handsome but frumpy, middle-aged guy with the turtleneck and the unruly head of hair sitting next to you at the coffee shop or schlepping about town on his way to get a coffee. He’s real.

Written and directed in a docudrama style by the gifted Mike Mills and filmed in somber and muted towns of black and white, “C’mon C’mon” is a combination of the story of a fractured family trying to heal, and the story of American cities populated by adults who have seen and experienced too much, and their children, who are still young enough and optimistic enough to hold out hope for their future. It’s a thoughtful, poetic, sometimes heartbreakingly authentic tale, with some sweet and funny moments helping us through the heavier drama.

Phoenix’s Jesse is a New York City-based radio journalist who specializes in long-form audio documentaries and travels from city to city, lugging his old-school, 1990s-level, cumbersome equipment. (That Johnny isn’t a podcaster working with a MacBook Air and lightweight mics and headphones tells you something about his persona. He comports himself like someone who isn’t the least bit interested in social media or becoming an influencer. He’s an old-fashioned journalist who wants to tell stories — other people’s stories.)

Johnny has been estranged from his Los Angeles-based sister Viv (Gaby Hoffmann), but when he calls Viv on the one-year anniversary of their mother’s death and Viv says she has to go up to Oakland to be with her troubled ex-husband Paul (Scott McNairy) because Paul has had another breakdown, Johnny impulsively volunteers to look after Viv’s 9-year-old son Jesse (Woody Norman), whom he hardly knows. Johnny flies out to L.A. and moves into Viv’s house with Jesse, who is an extremely bright and quite odd child, e.g., Jesse likes a role-playing game in which he pretends to be an orphan questioning a prospective foster parent.

“C’mon C’mon” segues into a road movie of sorts when Viv has to prolong her stay and Johnny takes Jesse back to New York City and his apartment in Chinatown, where the two unlikely roomies learn each other’s rhythms and go through the expected moments of bonding and the inevitable clashes and emotional trauma. (In a movie like this, you just know there’s going to be a moment when Johnny loses track of Jesse in the bustling swirl of madness that is New York City.) At one point Johnny calls Viv and confesses he doesn’t know what he’s doing, to which she responds: “Yeah, welcome to my f---ing life.”

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Viv (Gaby Hoffmann) lets Johnny take care of her son while she helps her ex-husband through a crisis.

A24

With Johnny’s producer (Molly Webster) and her partner (Jaboukie Young-White) in tow, acting as surrogate aunt and uncle to Jesse, the group eventually makes its way to New Orleans for more interviews, and by this time Jesse has become like a miniature member of the crew. (He loves to don Johnny’s big clunky headphones and wield the boom mic like a fishing pole, taking in the sounds of various cities.) The interview segments in Detroit, New York and New Orleans feature young people speaking as themselves, not actors, as they talk about the challenges of being a kid in 21st century America, how they feel about their parents and what they believe the future holds. (The film is dedicated to Devante Bryant, a 9-year-old who was later killed in a shooting.) Phoenix is enormously effective in just the smallest ways in these scenes — asking a question or two, and then just simply listening and being there.

The dynamic between Phoenix and young Woody Norman (a little boy with an old-timer’s name) is the key to this film, and they are terrific together, but never in a cutesy, actor-ish way. We never get the sense Norman is playing to the camera or engaging in kid-actor scene stealing. Meanwhile, Gaby Hoffmann is a marvel in one of those supporting player roles that requires an actor to be on the telephone for long stretches of time, playing off an unseen partner. It’s a grounded performance in a work that deftly toggles between a slightly surreal journey and a gritty, realistic tale.


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