Review: Joker

This was one of my most anticipated movies of the year, not only because of the focus on one of my favorite villains of all time but also because of the team behind it. Todd Phillips, known for his comedy (Road Trip, Old School, The Hangover), pairs up with actor Joaquin Phoenix (Her, You Were Never Really Here) to deliver one of the most provocative films of the year thus far. The buzz around the film has fallen on both sides of Hollywood news, from a standing ovation at the Venice Film Festival to the mixed-to-negative critical response and social roasting for it’s take on mental illness and violence. Regardless of what you think of the film, it made a whopping $96 million in the U.S. alone this past weekend, catapulting it to the largest domestic October opening ever. I really enjoyed the film and recommend Joker as an independent comic book film with a fantastic new take on Batman’s arch-nemesis.
Arthur Fleck is a down-on-his-luck resident of 1980’s Gotham city who spends his days working as a clown-for-hire and his nights taking care of his sick mother and working up the nerve to pursue his dreams of being a comedian. Virtually invisible to everyone, things go from bad to worse for Arthur as he is assaulted, fired, mocked, and emotionally disemboweled by life. In desperation, Fleck finds himself faced with the ugliness of his own mental instability and snaps under the pressure. Suddenly finding himself the center of the city’s attention, the Joker emerges as a symbol for the oppressed to rally behind as mayhem and violence break out and spread throughout Gotham like a virus.
Todd Phillips has come right out and said Phoenix’s Joker will not share a screen with the next Batman star Robert “Battinson” Pattinson (yup, the vampire…AND also The Lost City of Z, Good Time, and The Lighthouse), which gives me pause on enjoying this film more. Not because I won’t get to see Phoenix reprise his role (I’m used to that by now…it’s never once happened for him) but because this movie carefully injected “comic books” into a story that didn’t need it. This story could have been something wonderful on its own apart from DC origins, because it also seems to be trying very hard to not be another comic book movie. I appreciate that they had a great story written for this villain, and it is a colorful and stylistic film, but give me a Joker that I can see more than one time! Nicholson: 1. Ledger: 1. Leto: 1 (which was enough). And now Phoenix continues the pattern of solo appearances. The tone and tempo of this film, with a few tweaks, could have been a really great suspense thriller or horror movie. But also, the context and our familiarity with the titular character is one reason why this film works. So it’s a give and take, but I do appreciate that a new direction and style was taken rather than re-hashing any of the former performances.
I have to start my praises of the film with Phoenix’s performance. He easily outperforms the script and carries the film. His cackling laugh, haunting stare, and dialogue deprived of joy are not just unnerving but also captivate and provide us with a completely new backstory to our beloved villain. Phoenix reportedly lost 50 pounds for the role, showing some commitment to the character, and while he doesn’t come across in the same way as any Joker portrayal before him, I can see pieces of other Jokers in his performance and also his character’s future. I empathize with Arthur Fleck for parts of the film, something that never happened with any recent Joker character. He is a man aware of his own instability and reaching out for help, and Phoenix delivers on both accounts.
Another praise I have is in the working out of the story and how the writing and directing team brings together the themes of losing one’s grip as well as finding oneself in the same film. It helps that the film takes Fleck’s perspective because there are times when we aren’t certain that we can trust his understanding of reality and what is actually happening to and around him. We watch him begin to spiral into madness after he acknowledges feeling no remorse for a grievous act of violence, but it is in that same moment that he realizes he needs to let go of his grip to find the freedom he is searching for. Now this is obviously not a great message for people who actually suffer from mental illness, nor does it come across as condoning such behaviors in the movie script. The story clearly points to Arthur’s actions as wrong. And as things become more ‘clear’ for Arthur, the realization that his life is “a comedy, not a tragedy” clearly reflects his shifting state of mind. The best representation of this is how in the beginning of the film, day after day he walks up the steps to his apartment with his head hung low, while toward then end he is captured dancing down them in his full suit and makeup. The “joy and laughter” that he routinely refers to as his reason for existence has taken on new meaning. In his mind, life has changed for the better because he is more internally aligned to who he feels like he should be, rather than how society sees him.
The final praise I have for the film relies on the personification of the city of Gotham and it’s mirrored image to Arthur’s deteriorating mental state. Gotham is rotting. In the midst of this is Arthur’s dissent into his character as Joker and the violence he begins, dressed as a clown. The divide is growing between the upper and lower classes and tensions are rising as mayoral candidate Thomas Wayne makes things worse by referring to those in less fortunate situations due to their own life choices as “clowns,” referring to Joker. Coincidentally, the powder keg explodes and the clowns who idolize Joker’s actions revolt against the system. The feelings have been stirring beneath the surface just like with Arthur, and after the fuse is lit there is no going back as every clown has a mask to hide behind, including Joker.
The one criticism that continues to have a strong voice is why make a film that pivots on a moment of gritty violence during a time when our nation is struggling with random acts of violence? Maybe Phillips is trying to say something about our time, maybe not? But putting out a movie like this is sure to cause controversy as everyone with a platform comes in looking for political and racial motivations behind plot directions and character choices with which to rant about so they’re heard. Good movies draw on where society was, is, or could end up in order to create engaging discourse. What to do about mental illness and gun control and random acts of violence and bad politics are questions that people have right now, but just because the titular character skews toward providing unfit answers doesn’t mean the film is abhorrent and should be avoided or discredited. Never at any time is the character of Joker meant to be someone we look up to and he was written as someone the city rallies behind for the sake of the film. He is not a hero and Phillips does not intend for him to be seen as one.
A few throwbacks and homages that I noticed in the film as I watched before capping off this review: 1) Martin Scorsese’s film Taxi Driver (one I watched for the first time earlier this year) is brought to mind when seeing Joker because of comparisons in the unstable nature of the main character and the violence that ensues; 2) I was reminded of another Scorsese film, The King of Comedy, starring Robert De Niro (who plays a late night tv show host in Joker) except in more of a role reversal as in that movie he is stalking a late night host; 3) Phoenix’s green hair and makeup pay homage to the look of Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight while his apparent laughing illness pays homage to the forever smile on Jack Nicholson’s face in 1989’s Batman; 4) Although motivated by revenge in Joker, the violence that follows Arthur Fleck becomes more and more similar to that of Ledger’s Joker, a man who just wants to watch the world burn. And there you have it! I did enjoy this film despite its heavy reliance on Batman characters and setting and plot, which I saw as quite unnecessary in propping up the spectacular performance by Joaquin Phoenix. This story does stand alone and likely will continue to remain separate from the most current DC Universe films involving Batman, but nonetheless it is an accomplishment and one I feel is worthy of a watch. If you’ve already seen it, or when you do see it, let me know what you think by coming back here and leaving a comment! Thanks for reading, cheers!

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