There was no way I was getting out of this one in one piece, was there? The discourse and conversations about 'Joker,' the newest film in the DC films pantheon, have been ever-expanding ever since its inception.
Was it even a good idea to do a Joker film without Batman? Was Joaquin Phoenix's take on the character going to continue the messy history of method acting by taking on a character steeped in method acting legacy? Was Todd Phillips really the best choice to make, not just a comic book movie, but one steeped in the works of Martin Scorsese, the latter of whom initially had a hand in making the project?
Then there's the darker questions that began to steep through the early consensus as the film got closer. Was it going to be simply a reminder of the dark, twisted spirals any of us could go down, or was it glorifying a subset of the population that, in 2019, seemed more akin to a nightly news report than an escapist drama?
Meanwhile, I was sitting there all the while intrigued at the notion of a truly stand-alone film from DC. The addition of Joaquin Phoenix - arguably one the upper echelon of performers working today - and framing it through the lens of 'Taxi Driver' only added to that fascination.
And when I sat down to watch the film, I had one particular quote running through my mind:
(No, I will not apologize for adding the GIF).
So, getting to the nitty-gritty, is 'Joker' a revolutionary punchline in the making or just too risqué to click? Well, I'm about to make every side mad, so just hear me out if you will: I don't hate 'Joker.' In fact, between the time I walked out of the theater and to writing this review, I'd argue I've developed a bit more appreciation for the film than I initially thought. But I'm sorry...it is not the masterpiece signaling the shifting tide of cinema that a certain group of critics will lean into, and the actual conversations around the film are far more interesting than what Todd Phillips and Warner Bros. are giving in this particular story.
Arthur Fleck (played by Joaquin Phoenix) is a street clown performing in Gotham City in the early 1980's. He lives with his mother, Penny (played by Frances Conroy), who used to work for billionaire Thomas Wayne (played by Brett Cullen), but has since become mostly bedridden. Arthur himself suffers from an unspecified illness that causes him to sporadically laugh at any sort of extreme emotion, which winds up being ironic as one of his lifelong goals seems to be becoming a stand-up comic to appear on a late night talk show hosted by Murray Franklin (played by Robert De Niro) . As Gotham begins to fall into dismay and poverty, Arthur finds himself in the crosshairs, losing his job in the process. This results in a series of events that eventually begin to torture his psyche and sanity, slowly devolving into something else (cue sinister laughter in the background).
This leads me into my first (and likely, most obvious) positive that I can think of, which is Joaquin Phoenix as the titular character. The movie mostly sidelines its other characters, likely to put the spotlight on Phoenix, and it's a great decision because he delivers in spades. At the core of the character of the Joker, even discounting the connections to Batman, is a character who has sociopathic tendencies within his sociopathic tendencies, all while reveling in a sick sense of nihilistic humor and with Joaquin Phoenix's inhabiting of that character works remarkably well.
If nothing else, Phoenix's incarnation of Joker is as bold, maddening, and unhinged as any of his predecessors. By the end of the movie, you feel that sense of unhinged madness exuberating off him, and he relishes every minute of screen time he gets, both as the childlike Arthur and the sociopathic Joker. If nothing else, this film focuses on the character of Joker, and Phoenix gives the role everything it needs to stick the landing.
'Joker' stands out on a technical level as well, with cinematographer Lawrence Sher (a regular collaborator of Phillips') enhancing the frantic nature that Arthur increasingly gains, while giving just the right distinct splashes of color to an otherwise simple environment. In addition, I have to give huge props to Hildur Guðnadóttir for her music in the film, which relies on haunting atmospheres and bass-heavy cellos that stick in your mind just as much as the Joker himself.
Part of me wants to be able to sit back and, as I'm sure many will add, not take the film too seriously. After all, it's just a comic book movie right? Except that it's not, and Todd Phillips' vision for this seems to have little concern for the source material, both in the world building and even its central character.
Like I said, I give a lot of credit to trying to capture the tone of Gotham City and the classism disparities that run rampant through it, but would it have really killed Phillips to do something visually interesting with it, because this is the most dull Gotham City I've ever seen put to screen. I understand the idea was to make a Joker and Gotham mythology that feels painfully conceivable within our own reality (and it does work on that level). But even more than that, it highlights my overarching issue with the film: a seemingly disinterested view of its source material. To be clear, I don't need my comic book movies to be bright, optimistic and colorful, nor do I need them to deify their own source material.
But it seems like Todd Phillips is much more interested in exploring the Joker through the most brutal lens of dramatic issues than actually exploring the character himself. If that's the reason for all the praise the film has been getting, than I kind of get the appeal. One of the things I actually appreciated about the film is how Phillips will harken back to Alan Moore's novel, The Killing Joke by showing us moments we've seen in new context, for us to go "Oh duh, of course it didn't happen that way, because it's how Arthur imagined it happening." Put it like this: another DC film from just this year, 'Shazam!' successfully addressed child loneliness and familial detachment, while also featuring a guy in a red onesie and ending with a telepathic caterpillar. Todd Phillips, you don't have to sacrifice source material to fit in with the cool cinephiles!
These decisions put the film in a rough spot; it wants to be a movie about class and how society can ignore whoever it deems unworthy, and a movie about an insane clown who will one day fight a man in a bat suit, unable to step between those two identities. It can't lean towards the former because that would mean giving us a fuller, more complex view of Arthur's story, and it can't lean towards the latter because it simply doesn't have the interest to explore any of those ideas beyond that Batman's dad was probably a jerk. And I didn't even get to the questions about mental health in this movie, which are their own can of worms that I am nowhere near qualified enough to talk about.
It might sound like I'm ripping into it too much, but I mean it wholeheartedly when I say I don't hate what 'Joker' delivers. What we get is a fascinating study into a character marvelously brought to life in another unique take on a classic character, all drenched in some interesting visuals and hypnotic music. I just wish the film around these ideas had something more interesting, complex, or, dare I say, fantastical to say like Todd Phillips seems so intent on showing us. I feel as though film fandom, myself included will be talking about this for a long time coming, and I'm happy to: just don't expect me to do it with a smile.
Overall, I give "Joker" 6.5/10
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