Volume Eight, Issue Forty!
“Movie Review: Joker”
Being a big Batman fan, I’ve seen a lot of takes on the Dark Knight. That also means I’ve seen a lot of takes on his arch nemesis, the Joker. From Heath Ledger’s scarred anarchist to Jared Leto’s tattooed thug, The Joker has had arguably the most interpretations of any comic book character in history, and since he’s my all-time favorite villain in fiction, I’m pretty protective of him. Which is why I was going into Todd Phillips’ Joker with some pretty heavy skepticism. On the one hand, you have Joaquin Phoenix, arguably the best actor of our generation, in the lead. On the other hand, this is a Joker origin movie (strike one) that doesn’t feature Batman (strike two), and is from the director of The Hangover and Due Date (movies that I find funny, but strike three). Add in the fact that it seems to be more influenced by early Martin Scorsese films like Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy than anything from the Clown Prince of Crime’s myriad comic book appearances, and I was starting to get a feeling of confusion over what the point of even calling this film “Joker” was . With the storm of controversy and furor surrounding the film’s release, including winning the Golden Lion at Cannes and increased police presence at showings (plus Todd Phillips’ increasingly stupid comments on the state of comedy), and it was getting to a point where I was looking forward to seeing the film less out excitement and curiosity, and more out of a feeling of “let’s just get this over with”. The end result has me falling somewhere squarely in the middle on Joker, a film that has many flaws, but an undeniably great lead performance in Joaquin Phoenix.
Joker follows Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), an extremely ill man who makes his living as a part-time clown for hire. Dreaming of being a stand-up comedian, Fleck unfortunately has delusions of grandeur, as his desire to be famous far outweighs his actual talent. As the world around him teeters more and more on the brink of madness, Fleck becomes more and more unhinged, reaching a breaking point that unleashes his true inner self. An inner self that laughs at the world that laughed at him.
One of the big hurdles that Joker struggles to get around is its influences. From the moment the film was announced, Todd Phillips stated that this film would have shades of Taxi Driver and King of Comedy, and would show a “gritty, grounded” take on what kind of “bad day” it would take to unleash something like The Joker on society. There’s a fine line between something being “influenced by” and “ripping off”, and Joker walks that line too close at times. In fact, there are moments where you’d be forgiven for forgetting that this film is even based on the DC comics villain that was famous for putting his face on fish or killing Jason Todd. Phillips’ commits so hard to the Scorsese playbook (one that Scorsese himself has pretty much grown out of) that it almost feels like the film couldn’t exist without the idea of “what if Taxi Driver but Travis Bickle is the Joker?” While people complained that Christopher’s Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy was dour, it looks like the Adam West series compared to this. The streets of Gotham are littered with trash, everyone’s apartment is rat-infested, and the clothes on Arthur’s back hang off of him like loose robes.
Joker is also a ridiculously slow burn, which in fairness, Todd Phillips was very up front about. Fleck’s descent into madness is executed really well, but by the time he’s in full Joker mode, the movie is well into the third act, and it’s hard not to be left a little underwhelmed with the film when Fleck is fully the Joker, which is a very strange way to feel about a murderous clown. A running subplot has Fleck becoming a sort of a folk hero for the lower class citizens of Gotham, a move that is both intriguing and a little ridiculous, especially when Phillips has stated that this film isn’t supposed to glamorize the character.
Joaquin Phoenix is an enigma of an actor, and the sheer fact that he signed on to be in a film like this just adds to his mystique. He’s easily the highlight of the film, and the reason to watch for those that are curious. Phoenix is absolutely mesmerizing, and his Arthur Fleck, cursed with a neurological disease that causes him to laugh in uncomfortable situations, is truly, deeply unsettling. It’s almost like his laughter is coming from a deeper, darker place that is struggling to get free, and he’s struggling even more to keep it locked up. The moments when Fleck is truly free are just as strange and bewitching, as Phoenix begins to contort his gaunt body in a dance to music that only he can hear, a recurring motif throughout the film that was very unexpected. Phoenix’s take on the character is unlike any that have come before it, and I don’t think we’ll see anything like it again.
The rest of the cast is rounded out by Robert De Niro as Murray Franklin, a talk show host that Fleck idolizes, Zazie Beetz as Fleck’s neighbor Sophie, and France Conroy as Penny Fleck, Arthur’s ailing mother. Their scenes are all pretty brief in the film, as Joker is really Phoenix’s show. Honestly, if this movie is going to get any Oscar nominations or even awards, it’s probably gonna be Phoenix’s performance that will do it.
As good as Phoenix is though, he can only do so much, and at the end of the day, Joker ended up being a victim of it’s own hype. There are elements here that are so over the top that it’s almost unintentionally funny, and we should really put a moratorium on any ironic “put on a happy face” motifs for The Joker for the next few years. The film also suffers from being removed from the Batman mythos, only to then awkwardly shove it in during the final act where the Waynes yet again meet their fate, something that I’m shocked the filmmakers didn’t realize has become a joke among comic fans and the general public (it should also be stated that the scene doesn’t really make sense for where it takes place in the narrative of the movie, but I digress).
It may not have worked completely for me, but I have to give credit to Warner Bros, Phillips, and Phoenix for trying something new with Joker, even if the end result is something that isn’t as good as it was hyped up to be. Joker tries to have its cake and eat it too, and in the end, becomes a story that makes you wonder why it was even tied to the DC universe in the first place. It wants us to be empathetic towards Arthur, but not so empathetic where we condone his actions. It wants us to believe that The Joker doesn’t “believe in anything”, even going so far as to have Phoenix state that, but then has him go on an angry rant on live TV about how society doesn’t care about the lower class. It wants to be completely different and unique from other DC and comic book films, but can’t resist showing us the Waynes getting gunned down in an alley, AGAIN. Joker and Phillips seem so hell bent on making the movie different that they create a living paradox that makes the film feel almost as disjointed as Arthur’s mind.
Perhaps people who have little knowledge of the Batman universe, or people who don’t hold the Joker as close to their chest as I do, will find more to enjoy with Joker. After all, like Batman, Joker thrives on new takes and perspectives being added to him, and in turn, the ones that stick help add a new level to the character. Joker, and Phoenix’s take on the character, are certainly unique, but for me, the film around it makes me feel that won’t have the lasting power of the versions from Heath Ledger or even Jack Nicholson.