Well, it’s finally here. If you or someone you know hasn’t heard of Todd Phillips’ new Joker movie which opens in theaters this weekend, you might want to check and see how they’re doing under that rock, cause they might need to stay under there for a while if they hope to avoid talk of the Joaquin Phoenix-led supervillain origin story. The film was directed by Todd Phillips from a script by himself and co-writer Scott Silver, and somewhat acts as the first major experiment in feature filmmaking for DC’s “Black Label” brand (likely to evolve into their non-DCEU comic book branch). Joaquin Phoenix (as noted above) stars as Arthur Fleck, a down-on-his-luck comedian looking to make it in the big leagues, but barely surviving down with the more common people of Gotham City due to insufficient living conditions in he and his mother’s apartment, and suffering from a specific mental illness that causes him to have random fits of uncontrollable laughter (plus, to make matters worse, his jokes aren’t all that funny). Life is hell for Arthur and his mother, and no one really seems to take notice of his plight. But after a violent altercation leads to further escalations of tension across the city, Arthur begins to grow more confident, morphing into something wholly terrifying, yet deeply compelling in the eyes of the people. Joker looks to examine how a psychopathic murderer such as the titular Batman villain can come to be, and how if some people aren’t careful, they could set off a ticking time bomb that’s hidden in plain sight.
This was one of my most anticipated films of the year from the minute I heard about the idea going into production; so much comic adaptation in the modern day is tied to the idea of a cinematic universe that it seemed nigh impossible to get a true stand-alone movie made without at least a sequel being announced early on in the production process or hearing about a surprise connection to another stand-alone film (even Shyamalan has a superhero/villain trilogy under his belt). When the director was announced, I was surprised to learn Todd Phillips had taken the lead on the project, but I remained optimistic, as he had directed War Dogs (which many find to be underrated) and it wasn’t as if there wasn’t precedent for directors primarily known for comedy to come swinging into comic book movies and knock them out of the park, even on the first go. And with the legendary Martin Scorsese producing? At least the film would look fantastic. Then, we got the news: Joaquin Phoenix would be playing the Joker, and we got to look at some make-up test footage to tee us up for the big event. What followed were two of the best movie trailers 2019 has had to offer yet, and the hype went through the roof when the film won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, despite a fair amount of negative reviews from critics (no American film that’s ever won the Golden Lion hasn’t gone on to either win or be nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars). Yet, the negative reviews continued to pile up, with some citing that this film could serve as an inspiration for incel violence and further shootings at movie theaters across the U.S. if not properly handled. While I’m not quite sure I agree with those interpretations, however, I do understand where they’re coming from, as Joker’s stripped-down exterior doesn’t yield much under scrutiny, apart from some troubling (though light) subtext.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I think Joker is a good movie in the grand scheme of things. It’s well-acted, well-designed, gorgeously photographed, and entertaining from start to finish; I never got bored of watching it. Watching Joaquin Phoenix slowly but surely transform into a madman with no shame, remorse, or empathy for anyone else is chilling, and this really is the best follow-up to Heath Ledger’s Joker legacy that we could have possibly hoped for. He might not get to stretch his maniacal muscles as much as I would have liked to see, but the character is there, and Phoenix plays almost every angle he has on the clown prince of crime. The production design and cinematography help out with this a lot, and as far as I’m concerned, Lawrence Sher (DP) already has his name in a nomination slot for 2020 awards season contention, although the Costume/Makeup teams and Mark Friedberg (production designer) aren’t likely far behind. The other performances in the film are really good as well (although minimal) with Robert De Niro in particular getting as close as anyone can playing against Phoenix to stealing the show; Zazie Beetz doesn’t get as much to do here as one would hope (she’s also barely there), but since the movie really belongs to the Arthur Fleck character, and focuses almost exclusively on him, it didn’t bother me as much as it otherwise would have. It's a bit of a waste, but not one you'll end up holding much of a grudge over, at least in the long-term.
All that being said, a film has to be more than just well-performed and good looking in order to be great, and Joker doesn’t seem to care about much more than the sum of its parts; the trouble is that apart from a somewhat disturbing view of mental illness and how people with those illnesses are portrayed in the film, Joker doesn’t really seem to have all that much on its mind besides trying to emulate other awards-season classics like Taxi Driver or King of Comedy, rather than letting itself fulfill the total potential afforded by a project like this. It’s just not quite as good as it seems to think it is, and the attempts at high-brow drama actually seems to be what drags the movie down, whereas the horror elements are the strongest part of the picture. Phoenix’s performance carries the film wherever it wants to go, but up until the third act, the film can’t really decide if it wants to be an arthouse drama about a deranged killer or a supervillain horror origin story. Eventually, it fits into that latter camp, but it’s a long eventually, and getting across the weaker second act accounts for most of that length.
My biggest issue with the film, though, doesn’t stem from its pacing or its somewhat lackluster thematic resonance, but from the would-be gangbusters third act when the subtext discards the “sub” and becomes straight text. I won’t spoil the game, but suffice it to say, if you or someone you know is suffering from a mental illness, this could be the part that most frustrates you, as Joker attempts to posit that the reason people like the titular character exist is as a result of the system and others pushing them around until they’ve decided they’ve had enough, rather than make any efforts in educating the audience that what really causes “Joker”-type people to come out of the woodwork can (most of the time) be boiled down to a superiority complex fueled by white nationalist rhetoric with the occasional mix of straight-up Nazi sentiment/sympathy. There are some rare cases of mass shooters and massacre men being mentally ill, but they’re so few and far between, and the stigma surrounding mental illness already so great, that Todd Phillips’ new supervillain origin story might actually do more harm than good for those who want to reach deeper into the film than what’s on the screen (as hard as that would be to do since there’s hardly any subtext other than that).
Joker is not a bad film per se, but (much like Green Book last year), it carries with it some troubling thematic elements that actually may do more harm than good in the long run, and while I won’t say that it is a filmmaker’s responsibility to prevent or caution against real-world violence, I will say that it is any educator’s responsibility to practice prudence in teaching what the cause of that violence actually is (more often than not), and this film seems determined to stay stuck in outdated notions of the mentally ill being the most dangerous people walking the streets. Joaquin Phoenix turns in a great performance as the titular character, Lawrence Sher’s cinematography is immaculate and beyond reproach, and the design aesthetics of the film inspired by classic-era Scorsese all work remarkably well as a whole, but Joker is no comic book masterpiece, Golden Lion or not.
I’m giving “Joker” a 7.6/10
- The Friendly Film Fan
Film critic in my free time. Film enthusiast in my down time. Writer for Bitesize Breakdown.