Very few movies have received as much buzz as “Joker” in 2019. Based on one of the most iconic comic book villains in history and the main baddy to Batman, the latest dark and gritty take on DC’s comic book material has caused quite a stir in the weeks leading up to its debut earning the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and media controversy for its realistic depiction of violence. It’s even earned buzz as a potential heavy Oscar contender with some calling it Best Picture material. Needless to say, my interest was piqued. Was “Joker” worthy of all of the buzz, both positive and negative, and could it hold up to the lofty expectations set upon it by not only the fans and critics, but the Joker’s of the past as well now that the Clown Price of Crime was being put front and center? We’ll lets break down what could be either one of the best movies of 2019 or one of the most underwhelming disappointments. This is my review of “Joker”.
Also some very MINOR spoilers may be found in this review, however, as always, I try to stick with what has been shown in commercials in terms of how much of the picture I delve into. Let’s get to it.
Taking place in 1981, “Joker” is set in Gotham City where crime and unemployment have become the norm. Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) and his mother Penny (Frances Conroy) are among those on hard times as Fleck makes a living to support them both by acting as a clown but seeks to become a successful comedian. Fleck suffers from emotional incontinence, a real-life neurological disorder that causes him to laugh at inappropriate times, and deals with debilitating depression brought on by the state of the world. After Fleck accepts a gun from a coworker to defend himself he eventually has the need to use it when he is jumped by a group of high-class drunks. His actions set off a chain reaction that sparks a revolution in Gotham City with Fleck’s clown facade becoming as an unwitting symbol of anarchy. As Fleck’s mental state continues to deteriorate he comes to see the world in a different light and puts into motion a devious plan involving late night talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro) that will announce the arrival of a new terror, the Joker, to the streets of Gotham.
“Joker” is not your average comic book film. In fact, it doesn’t even acknowledge itself to be about a comic book villain skipping the traditional DC logo right out of the gate and getting right into the story. “Joker” takes its titular character and humanizes him, which might seem like an odd thing to do for a murderous psychopath but that’s the beauty of what this film has to present. Arthur Fleck is a damaged person who only wants to make people laugh. It’s his life’s goal. But his mental illness along with the crumbling state of society has caused him to be forgotten and literally and figuratively stepped on. As people become more self centered and mental health resources are stripped from the economically crushed Gotham Fleck comes to embrace his mental illness rather than fear it seeing no other way to find purpose in his existence. Instead of depicting Fleck as a bad guy with no redeeming qualities we actually see him ask for help and be denied it by a society with skewed priorities. Yes his action are never fully justified. We know why he is how he is but the movie never explicitly says hes in the right, only that there are many factors that lead him down his path. Unable to find the help he needs or acceptance in society Fleck decides the world deserves him at his worst because they couldn’t accept him at his best. This does lead to some very violent encounters and while the killings at Fleck’s hands might have sparked some outrage even before people bothered to see the movie “Joker” shows us what the world NEEDS to see right now, a mentally ill person left to rot by the world who goes off the deep end partially due to unavoidable mental problems and partially due to society’s ignorance of the problem.
Of course a big part of all this is the tremendous performance by star Joaquin Phoenix as the titular Joker. Phoenix was already known as a master performer before his dedicated turn as Arthur Fleck, but if there was ever any doubts of his talent this movie ends them all. Phoenix completely loses himself in the role of the Joker with very visible weight-loss to capture Fleck’s look and a perfect presentation of Fleck’s deteriorating mental state adding his own little flairs of brilliance to make this Joker stand out in the crowded class of Joker’s that have been presented on the big screen. Is it the best Joker interpretation to date? I haven’t given the performance enough time to settle to decide that for sure, but I will say if Heath Ledger’s unhinged and brilliant take on the character can win an Oscar Phoenix more than deserves to earn the same honor. As I said earlier, it might seem odd that a villain is made “human” by a film like this, but Phoenix fully embraces the opportunity to explore the origins of evil from the human psyche making “Joker” a character study that appreciates the difficulty of such a person existing in a world where people have become more divided and damaged than ever before.
What helps “Joker” stand out in the comic book genre is that director Todd Phillips, famous for his comedy films like “The Hangover” and “Old School”, presents us with a beautifully shot and immersive look into the dark reality of Gotham as well as an insightful, almost fly-on-the-wall-like look into a madman’s decent. Every shot has purpose and the story ditches the traditional comic book formula in favor of a much more visceral and poetic story. Complimented by a fantastic script and a hypnotizing, Oscar-worthy score by Hidur Guðnadóttir, “Joker” is a mesmerizing experience that finds the perfect balance between character driven storytelling and engrossing fanfare. While “Joker” does delve into more comic book-esque territory in its final act, if you walked into the movie ignorant of its comic book roots you could easily see this as an inspired interpretation of the harsh realities of society and what drives a mentally ill person over the edge. One important aspect of this experience is the violence and while there is plenty of bloodshed presented in disturbingly raw fashion, I’d argue other genres show more disturbing content than “Joker” and yet they receive little critical backlash. Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed” for example was just as violent, if not more so, and it won Best Picture and continues to be appreciated. It might be blunt to say, but I believe the only reason “Joker” has received any backlash is due to the characters’ association with the tragic Aurora theater shootings and the fact that comic books are still to this day, despite evidence to the contrary, considered “kids stuff” making the early media frenzy over the assumed violence, in my opinion, very irresponsible although I fully support the Aurora theater not showing the film for obvious reasons. Speaking of Scorsese, a lot of people have noted the director was originally involved as a co-producer on the film and while he didn’t stay on the project for long his finger prints are all over it as both “The King of Comedy” and “Taxi Driver” were clear inspirations for some of the concepts and scenes in “Joker”.
So, is there anything wrong with “Joker”? Well every film has its flaws. No movie is perfect. “Joker” is no different. While other performers like Robert De Niro and Zazie Beetz (who plays Fleck’s purported love interest Sophie) turn in awesome performances they are heavily overshadowed by the Phoenix who is part of almost every single shot and thus we get very little development of the secondary characters beyond their roles in Arthur Fleck’s narrative. While this plays into the character-centric nature of the film it also leaves secondary characters feeling a little underutilized. The whole subplot of anarchy spreading across Gotham with Joker as the unintentional symbol of the uprising is also a bit on the nose for me compared to some of the other deeper elements the film was trying to present. The idea of the poor rising up against the rich is nothing new in either cinema or the world of Gotham City, and in “Joker” it’s sort of an add-on concept that justifies the villain’s rise to infamy in the closing act and makes him more than just the simple man we’re supposed to see him as. It somewhat contradicts the more grounded and focused approach the rest of the movie embraces. Still, like every film I review, what impresses me about “Joker” is how well is rises above its errors and cliches to become a great product all its own, an amazing sum of its parts. Even at its worst “Joker” is fearless and effective in all the right ways.
I’m sure a lot of people read my reviews and know that a movie is destined to earn a perfect score from time to time. But the point of this blog for me is to be the middleman between fandom and artistic merit. I look at films as both entertainment and art and use those two perspectives to help define what makes a good movie for me. “Joker” is the perfect melding of those two perspectives. It’s one of the most inspired adaptations of a comic book property to date anchored by a magnetic performance by Joaquin Phoenix that helps drive home a visceral, unsettling and effective experience. It’s a game changer in many ways that addresses very harsh realities and alters how a villain can be interpreted on the big screen. I walked out of “Joker” completely blown away, and even as I’m writing this review I’m still analyzing what I saw. “Joker” is unrelenting, unapologetic, and uncompromising and in a world where cinema does tend to be dumbed down and more about escapism than the human condition “Joker” shows there’s still plenty of room and desire for very real cinematic experiences even when it comes to material prominent in pop culture. There’s so much to appreciate about this film and so little space for me to fully divulge all that I loved about it. So, my recommendation, ignore the fear mongering, ignore the critics denying this film its greatness for the sake of standing out. Go see this movie and judge it for yourself. “Joker” is a movie that NEEDS to be seen, need’s to be understood, and deserves to be appreciated not just because of how good it is but because of everything it has to say that society continues to ignore. It truly is an amazing masterpiece to behold.