‘Joker’ Is The Clown Prince We Deserve (Movie Review)

Todd Phillips’ Joker aims to deliver much-needed weight to the comic book genre. It’s an alternate take on the origin of one of the most famous villains in the DC universe. There are no massive CG set pieces. Instead, you have what adds up to two hours of a glum and not at all fun time at the multiplex. Still, free of the many tropes saddling down big-budget superhero flicks, the Joaquin Phoenix-starring film is a darn near triumph of style, performance, and timely resonance. That said, Joker is obviously not for kiddies but for everyone else let’s dive in…

Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) is a lost soul who just can’t catch a break. He lives in a dilapidated apartment complex with his well-meaning but must-be-cared-for mother Penny (Frances Conroy). Arthur also works part-time as a clown making little to no money and is regularly beat upon in the city of Gotham both figuratively and literally. All he has are bad thoughts, he tells his caseworker, who tries to keep him stable with anxiety meds. For all this misery, there most certainly will be a breaking point. Or maybe his stand-up career will take off?

On his journey from street clown to wannabe stand-up to The Clown Prince of Gotham, Arthur encounters many who mistreat him and make fun of him. Few, thankfully, offer kindness (a next-door single mom played by Zazie Beets).

Robert De Niro has what almost amounts to a glorified cameo as a Johnny Carson type who hosts The Murray Franklin Show. A late-night talk show Arthur idolizes. While the main plot of a loner in a big city screams Taxi Driver, the late-night comedy show is a fun twist on De Niro’s character in The King of Comedy. The main difference being how De Niro is now the Jerry Lewis character.

Many headlines have been made in the media about whether portraying a mentally ill white male is a bad idea in the current political climate. This sadly speaks to the last two decades, where during multiple administrations, mass shootings in this country have become the norm. Anyone with a passing familiarity with the character of Joker can probably guess what will happen once Arthur finally snaps, as the Joker is known for more than just his devilish wit. Guns may be involved as well, so the optics aren’t great.

Yet, from this reviewer’s eyes, there’s not a lot of controversy to be found on the screen. The film is incredible in its tone with little details that give life to a grimy, 70s era Gotham. Part Taxi Driver, part American Psycho with a sprinkle of The King of Comedy; the story is a self-contained trip often leaning into whole scenes being figments of Arthur’s psyche.

Allusions to 2019 America are prevalent, yet in no way do I think the filmmakers or Warner Bros. are endorsing Arthur’s actions. Walter White on AMC’s Breaking Bad is way more nudged into the, “Wouldn’t it be cool to be ‘The One Who Knocks,’” thing than the man Phoenix is portraying.

Yet ultimately, all of the substantial work is undone by the last act. By that point, Joker ends up feeling like just another comic book movie for better or worse.

First, the better – While Joaquin Phoenix does not surpass the late Heath Ledger’s performance, he often imbues Arthur with real pathos. This is especially the case in the first forty minutes (ironically, less than all of Ledger’s screen time in The Dark Knight). The acclaimed actor is portraying a complicated life full of sadness and depression. It’s one of confinement, frustration, and it’s, frankly, one that is very relatable. We might not be a street clown who gets robbed but too many know what’s it like not to be heard; to not be believed.

Phoenix often laughs in the film (like a lot). Yet, it’s absolutely grounded in character work, not just a checked box of supervillain tics. The actor’s physicality must not be understated either. With a sickly, thin frame, Phoenix seems to be at war with his own body, writhing impossibly. It’s always as if he’s attempting to break out of himself as well as his surroundings.

Another point – despite Phillips’ recent interview comments that have proven to be unpopular on social media, in addition to the way his most popular films revel in white privilege, Joker is very anti-white privilege. Yes, Arthur is Caucasian, but the POV of the film is focused on individuals certain administrations don’t consider or completely ignore.

Titan of industry and mayor-elect hopeful Thomas Wayne (father of Bruce, played by Brett Cullen) is portrayed as a bully of a man, a con man, and a jerk with more concern for the deaths of his white male employees (who nearly sexually assault a woman on a train) than the “clowns” of Gotham, i.e.; the poor, the tossed off. This is the film’s greatest strength.

While filmmaker Sean Baker has directed terrific pictures about people on the fringe of society with Tangerine and the Oscar-nominated Florida Project, this is a big win for these types of stories to be seen by millions, as opposed to just critics and cinephiles. Nearly everyone Arthur connects with in some way is a person of color and/or female, which speaks volumes as to why Joker is more anti-hero than supervillain.

Well, at least until the last act…

Amidst all the goodwill the film has earned, there’s a specific moment where Joker goes full-on comic book. An unconvincing flashback to shine a light on Arthur’s mother is the wrong kind of bleak. For a film that has been stunning to view with vibrant colors and dark shadows by DP Lawrence Sher (Godzilla: King of the Monsters), an overly lit moment between a patient and a doctor reeks of early 2000s genre stuff. Flat and dull with high grain amped up to eleven. Even the terrific score by Hildur Guðnadóttir (Arrival) sinks into melodrama.

It’s not all downhill from there, but there’s undoubtedly an air of generic the film can’t quite recover from. And this is despite a pretty satisfying showdown between Joker and Murray. I won’t spoil the end, but I wish Joker could have found a less showy and jazz handsy way to end. Still, the cards dealt for Arthur may have been stacked, but they were nevertheless fascinating.


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