REVIEW: Joker (2019)

Theatrical Release Poster – Warner Bros. Pictures

The following is a review of Joker — Directed by Todd Phillips.

It has felt almost impossible to drown out the noise surrounding Todd Phillips’ Joker. Any film even tangentially related to Batman has a gigantic spotlight on it at all times, but the drama surrounding the release of this standalone origin story has been different. Though the film has won numerous film festival awards, including the coveted Golden Lion-award from the Venice Film Festival, even select critics who liked the film have seemingly been apprehensive about recommending it.

The families of the victims of the 2012 Aurora, Colorado mass shooting, which happened during a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises, wrote an open letter to the film’s distributor. In part due to the subject matter of the film, but mostly due to the aforementioned open letter, Warner Bros. had to release a statement about the intention of their film. As I was getting ready to write my review of Joker, I spotted a picture on social media that seemingly depicted several heavily armed police officers ensuring the safety of moviegoers at a movie theater in New York City. I could go on and on about how dangerous the noise surrounding the release of Joker has made the film seem, but it seems more fitting to actually dive in and talk about the entertainment text at hand rather than to detail release and marketing drama.

DC Comics’ wicked and mysterious ‘Clown Prince of Crime,’ known simply as ‘the Joker,’ has a rich history on the big screen. In his review of Tim Burton’s Batman, the late, great film critic Roger Ebert once wrote that ‘the Joker’ was such an incredible character, and brought to life so well by Jack Nicholson, that audiences had to remind themselves to root for the good guy. Of course, Heath Ledger deservedly won a posthumous Oscar for his instantly iconic supporting performance in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. Due to the incredible popularity of the iconic character and Ledger’s iconic turn, it was always inevitable that one day we would get a film that focused on the wicked clown and his character background. Todd Phillips’ Joker is that standalone origin story spin-off film we always knew would come.

Todd Phillips’ Joker takes place in the fictional city Gotham City in the 1980s when a garbage strike has left the city looking dirtier than ever, and news reports claim that hundreds of rats are infesting the city. You are just waiting for someone to quote Taxi Driver‘s Travis Bickle and say “Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets.” It is here that we meet Arthur Fleck (played by Joaquin Phoenix), an aspiring stand-up comedian who works as a clown-for-hire, as he is getting ready for another workday. Arthur lives in a grimy Gotham City apartment with his mother, who he takes care of, bathes, and watches television with. They are both obsessed with late-night talk show host Murray Franklin (played by Robert De Niro), who Arthur looks up to, and Arthur often daydreams about getting to be a part of the show.

Like Alan Moore once wrote in the controversial graphic novel The Killing Joke, “all it takes is one bad day to reduce the sanest man alive to lunacy,” and, in Joker, Arthur Fleck has several of those bad days. Arthur is beaten up in alleyways, on the subway, and in bathrooms. All of his friends are two-faced and unreliable. His strange condition, which makes him laugh violently even at the most inopportune moments, gets in the way of his life and career. Like Arthur complains in the film, all he has are negative thoughts. It’s only a matter of time before he snaps. When Murray Franklin makes fun of a failed stand-up set of his, he may have found his moment.

When Tim Burton made his iconic Batman-films, his version of Gotham City was expressionistic and gothic. It was a world unlike our own. Todd Phillips’ vision is distinctly different. The Gotham City of Joker is extremely realistic. He has molded his Gotham City by imitating American entertainment texts of the late 1970s and 1980s that showcased New York City. Lawrence Sher, the director of photography, captures Gotham City gorgeously, and the production design is outstanding. They credibly capture the targeted rich visual aesthetic. Hildur Guðnadóttir’s spellbinding score is ominous and full of sorrow. One of the film’s most dreamlike scenes, set in a bathroom, has been stuck in my mind ever since the movie ended in large part due to Guðnadóttir’s theme. Almost from top-to-bottom, Joker is an extremely well-crafted film and is, definitely, unlike any other modern comic book film.

With that having been said, Joker is, however, a very derivative film. Todd Phillips isn’t just inspired by Martin Scorsese’s classics. Like I hinted at in the plot description, Todd Phillips’ film has stolen from films like Taxi Driver, and, even more clearly, The King of Comedy. Those two Scorsese classics provided Phillips with a visual aesthetic to copy, a misanthropic character to draw from, and a story to retell. Sure, Todd Phillips borrows from The Killing Joke, but if you have even a passing knowledge of the aforementioned Scorsese films, then the similarities will stick out like sore thumbs (and you may get tired of the similarities if you know these films like the back of your hand). Phillips would probably say that Joker is a tribute to Scorsese’s classics, but others may call it an imitation, an appropriation, or something worse. I certainly never thought this felt like an original film, even though it definitely is unique in the genre. Those who only watch superhero films have never seen anything like this before, and I hope it leads those audiences to experience Scorsese’s oeuvre.

My other major issue with Joker is the fact that the plot of the film relies upon audiences accepting and believing that a violent social movement would be inspired by the actions of the titular character. One might argue that it is not his actions that inspire the movement but rather a provocative remark from a wealthy politician, and that may be true at the beginning of the film. But, in the film’s final act, it most certainly is the titular character’s actions that inspire riots, and I’m not sure it is entirely believable that Arthur Fleck eventually becomes a figurehead for the movement. With all of this having been said, the film does make sure to establish that Fleck is an unreliable narrator (in part by referencing Taxi Driver, of course).

However, I must say that — warts and all — Joker is as gripping as it is unsettling. Though the plot may be somewhat unsound, I was enthralled by Arthur Fleck’s story. This is a skillfully made character study with, as has already been established, a haunting score and riveting cinematography. These features are not merely the icing on the cake, but there can be no doubt that it is the outstanding performance given by Joaquin Phoenix that makes this such a memorable film. Simply put, Joaquin Phoenix’s performance in Joker is one of the best he has ever given. Though he has lost a lot of weight to play Arthur Fleck, his performance is meant for more than just a weight loss headline meant to bring attention to the film. Joaquin Phoenix dances in Joker. He moves mesmerizingly on the screen like a ballet dancer growing in confidence. His movements are compelling and his performance is addictive. It is a physical, sad, and frightening performance, with which Phoenix makes the Joker scary again. Though his character is not entirely dissimilar from his character in You Were Never Really Here, and even though he has lost a lot of weight for a performance before, Joaquin Phoenix’s performance as the Joker is unforgettable, and I do think it actually elevates this film. People are going to want to ask if Phoenix’s performance as the titular character is better than the one Heath Ledger once delivered. Though I doubt that it will become as iconic as Ledger’s turn, Phoenix’s performance is arguably equally impressive, though it is very different from Ledger’s performance. At this moment, I don’t feel ready to say that Ledger’s performance has been topped, but ask me again in a year or two.

Phoenix’s performance is, however, the only one to write home about. Frances Conroy and Zazie Beetz’ characters are in plenty of scenes, but they are fairly one-note because their characters don’t ask them for a lot. Robert De Niro, who starred in the films that Phillips is very clearly aping, basically plays the role that Jerry Lewis played in The King of Comedy, but, unlike Lewis’ character in that film, De Niro isn’t in this film for more than three scenes.

While I won’t complain that Joker is an empty imitation, I don’t think Phillips’ message is strong enough — or, frankly, that he does enough with his homage — to set itself apart from the films he has aped. Joker is a derivative film, and it has its issues. But I cannot deny the power of Joaquin Phoenix’s addictive performance or the soulful music from Guðnadóttir. Todd Phillips’ Joker is no joke. It is a disturbing and ominous but gripping character study disguised as a comic book film. If the film hadn’t made me feel dirty when the lights came up at the end of the film, I would probably be tempted to call it a breath of fresh air for comic book films.

8.5 out of 10

– Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.

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