I am not someone who is loved. I'm an idea. A state of mind.
Joker is directed and co-written by Todd Phillips and stars Joaquin Phoenix as the titular Joker. The film also stars Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen, Glenn Fleshler, Bill Camp, Shea Whigham, and Marc Maron.
There is something kind of refreshing about a film like Joker: one that takes place in an extremely familiar universe but is almost completely opposed to drawing attention to the mechanics of that universe. Yes, Joker takes place in Gotham City: known all too well for being the sight of the infamous Batman and his adventures in fighting crime. In Joker however, Gotham is just a name: the name of a city plagued with crime and unemployment, no different than say Los Angeles or Baltimore. Batman is completely nonexistent in this version of Gotham, and thus, anything having to do with superheroes is completely nonexistent in Joker. It's as anti of a superhero movie as you'll find, and to be placed smack dab in the center of this day and age of what I always liked to call the Superhero Renaissance, well, that does this man's heart some good.
Something else that Joker is: controversial, which I'm more convinced is due to the nature of today's hypersensitive media then it is Todd Phillips condoning some morbid branch of psychology that would have him thrown in jail and barred from working on a motion picture ever again. In a nutshell, the film's controversy is fixated on the dark tone and the portrayal of mental illness. Joker is not just doing a psychoanalysis on a person that is clearly suffering from some form of mental illness; the film is victimizing that mental illness, as if to say mental illness is something that immediately places someone in the category of the oppressed, the alienated, whatever other word you can think of to mean a victim. So in a way, Joker is taking a defensive stance on mental illness, and in a time where the news is rampant with shootings, bullying, and other forms of crime or oppression, it's to be expected that a lot of people will get a little hot and bothered. The last thing they want to see is a movie romanticizing one of these troubled people, regardless if it's one of the most famous villains of the superhero genre.
The story of Joker follows Arthur Fleck: a party clown who lives with his mother, Penny (Conroy). Arthur suffers from PBA (pseudobulbar affect), a disorder that makes him burst out with laughter at awkward or inappropriate times. After a gang beats him up in alley to start the movie, things look to be trending in the right direction for Arthur: his co-worker, Randall (Glenn Fleshler), gives him a gun for protection, and he starts to date his neighbor, single mother Sophie (Beetz). It all goes south in a flash, however: Arthur loses his job after having his gun exposed during a visit to a children's hospital, and he then shoots and kills three businessmen while riding home on a subway. News of the murders dominates headlines, and Arthur, seeing the growing number of protests against Gotham's elite, starts to embrace a life of crime and his identity as the Joker.
- Anything less than an R rating would have been unacceptable from Warner Bros., because Joaquin Phoenix should have no kind of handicaps in this type of role. Phoenix has received almost universal praise for his performance, so if you're wondering: no, I am not going to go into the whole Heath Ledger vs Joaquin Phoenix debate on who played the character better. Phoenix's Joker is easily the most "hardcore" rendition of the character in live action: brutal, graphic kills and the undeniable sense that this is nowhere near some goofy version of the Joker you'd likely find in a Saturday morning cartoon. This is truly an individual suffering from a disease eating away at him inside, and what makes it different from the Joker's presentation in The Dark Knight is the all-in focus on the Joker's state of mind and how it starts to unravel as the plot progresses. In The Dark Knight, the Joker is already immersed in his nihilistic beliefs, and the movie doesn't need to show him walking down that path.
So anyway, Phoenix is excellent with how a budding Joker would act: twitchy body movements, a shaky, fluctuating voice, and finding a delicate balance between what could be perceived as funny versus something kind of gruesome. Arthur will randomly burst out laughing and make light of a sticky situation, and at least for a little while, you feel like you can start laughing along. Then a split second later, Arthur performs a complete 180 on the situation and leaves everyone in stunned silence. As shocking as such a moment is, nothing comes off as awkward or nonsensical, because such moments perfectly capture the fear of what it's like to be close to someone who seems like they could lose it at any moment. Phoenix's Joker is a prime example of that someone, and, all controversy aside, it's highly effective because of Phoenix's great performance.
- Joker's cinematography looks like something straight out of an early 2000's superhero film, but for what the film is trying to be, it's a strength, not a weakness. Cinematographer Lawrence Sher looks to be out of his element here; he's the same guy behind the cinematography of raunchy comedies like The Hangover films, The Dictator, and Garden State. Despite his track record, Sher brings his A-game with making Gotham look as grotesque as humanly possible: inky color schemes, grimy set designs, and shadowy interiors every which way you look. It's almost nauseating to look at anything other than the characters on screen, which is why it's a bit unfair that Phoenix gets all the love. I guarantee Phoenix's Joker would not be as menacing if he was placed in some bright, rainbow-y imagination land and not home sweet home for Oscar the Grouch. Even scenes taking place in broad daylight look dark and unpleasant, as if Sher has a fond hatred for the Sun and wants to keep it out of the movie as much as possible. There are no warm fuzzies or happily ever afters in Joker; the cinematography blots out anything and everything suggesting love and happiness.
- For all its psychoanalysis and impressive cinematography, Joker ends up being nowhere near as deep as one might think it can be. Arthur's Joker turns into the symbol that inspires Gotham's oppressed to rise up and fight back against Gotham's elite. Meanwhile, Arthur's story becomes, "the hopeless loser who overthrows the system that so terribly wronged him." This isn't bad story-telling; the problem lies in the fact that there aren't enough juicy, unique details to help propel Joker over any other "the victim overthrows the perpetrator" story. What is it about the Joker character that encourages Gotham's low-lifes to don clown masks and start to stage protests? Is it just because he had the guts to fight back against a couple drunk guys on a subway? What exactly is it about a clown or clown-makeup that makes it the perfect fuel for a rebellion? In Batman Begins for example, Bruce Wayne overcomes a fear of bats, and thus, becomes a hero that helps his city overcome its fears.
Part of why the Joker is Batman's arch-nemesis is because the two are almost complete opposites: Batman is a figure of the dark who stays in the shadows and has motivations that are rooted in fear. The Joker is an outlandish figure that loves to be in the spotlight, creating fear from anything normally considered funny. Hardly anything of what happens in the 2019 Joker resembles what is typically associated with the Joker character, and while that's not a back-breaker, it does sting that what we do get boils down to nothing more than, "these people are tired of being treated like dirt, so it's time for them to take a stand."
What I think would have made Joker a masterful origin story would be to take a neutral approach to the Joker's mentality and what causes him to take up a life of crime. The controversy surrounding the movie deals with how it is seemingly taking a defensive stance on people who suffer from mental illness, and that it's openly welcoming people to take on acts of real-world violence. In a time where mental disorders are a buzzing topic, a movie like Joker, had it been nothing more than a pure analysis on what exactly might go on in a mentally unstable person's mind, would seem like the perfect movie. To a certain extent, the movie accomplishes this goal, mostly thanks to a terrific lead performance by Joaquin Phoenix and some excellent cinematography by Lawrence Sher. What's unfortunate though is the movie is nowhere near as deep as it thinks it is, which kind of sucks since Joker takes place in a well-known superhero setting, but has no interest whatsoever in the pizzazz of a superhero flick. That lack of superhero pizzazz is certainly doing nothing to diminish the movie's box office results, which, as of this writing, is setting records for an October release. Controversy or not, that's putting a smile on Warner Bros. face.
Recommend? Yes. Despite its flaws, the movie offers an excellent lead performance worth seeing.
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