As a long form explanation why some dudes can literally get away with murder, Joker is a massive success/instructional video. It’s a striking indictment on the mental health care system without offering a better solution than psychotics having a bad day probably shouldn’t have such easy access to guns.
But as a challenging and captivating fresh look at Batman’s arch-enemy, Joker is a bad stand up routine devoid of a punchline…or a point.
Following the promotional rounds of Joker has been more fascinating than anything in the film. Star Joaquin Phoenix and director/co-writer Todd Phillips (The Hangover) have squirmed, walked off interviews and otherwise appeared very uneasy being challenged and questioned on a film that by design seems intended to make audiences uncomfortable.
Joker seems destined to be 2019’s most divisive film with some critics hailing it as the movie of the year while others hating it. Place me squarely in the latter.
The biggest problem and one Phillips and co-writer Scott Silver seems oblivious in addressing is why is Joker framed in a remotely sympathetic manner? Ignoring the vast comic book source material and strictly focusing on this film, Arthur is a character who’s clearly a little unhinged and is just a few series of events away from being dangerous.
There’s a reason why Warner Bros. and theaters around the country are preparing for “incidents” and beefing up security. There’s a concern Joker will be viewed as a call to action for social outcasts who want to be seen and heard for the first time.
Was there a way for Phillips and Silver to tell that story? Sure, but not in the framework of The Joker no matter how badly they try to retrofit the character to their purposes.
Arthur (Phoenix, Her) is on the verge of a breakdown. Given his heavy prescription regiment, it wouldn’t be the first. He’s toiling away as a rent-a-clown, but his lifelong ambition is to be a comedian like his idol talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro, Hands of Stone). For now he’s taking care of his dying mother Penny (Frances Conroy), who always calls him by her nickname for him — Happy.
But it’s hard for Arthur to be Happy and happy all the time. It’s a clever dual meaning that plays out throughout the film. Arthur has a condition that makes him laugh uncontrollably even in serious situations. Phoenix brings the strained pain through this laughter, but Phillips relies on it too often for uneasy humor and awkwardness.
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Maybe Arthur could find some solace in his apartment building neighbor (Zazie Beetz, Deadpool 2)? Overall the treatment of minorities in Joker is not great. In one scene, a bunch of drunk biz boys callously harass and start tossing fries at an Asian woman; a group of Latino teens are portrayed as cruel hooligans and then later referred to by Arthur’s white co-worker as “savages.”
Phillips and Silver utilize the old unreliable narrator device to decent effect, which addresses another major problem that was developing until the payoff. The trick is once you start down the unreliable narrator path it raises questions about how much of what we’re seeing is valid or trustworthy. Is everything one big, great delusion or just the very specific moments that get covered?
Just as complicated is the attempts to connect the film to Batman. Brett Cullen (The Dark Knight Rises) plays Thomas Wayne, who could potentially be carrying a secret damaging to his mayoral campaign. Problems come when Phillips and Silver start trying to weave greater threads to a future with Batman jumping off rooftops including one very spoiler-ific forced encounter.
Phoenix is fearless with his performance. I’m not the biggest fan of actors dramatically losing weight for a role as there’s some weird mixed message that by having a visible rib cage shows this tremendous commitment to the film.
Besides, it’s the other areas where Phoenix’s complete buy-in to the role is more advantageous to the film like his spastic dancing and the gleam in his eyes when he considers a joke or some life-altering decision. Phoenix is likely going to be in a lot of conversations when discussing front runners for Best Actor nominees.
Due to the film’s setup, it’s essentially a one-man show. The other cast members basically exist to react to Arthur’s descent into madness. De Niro has some nice moments, but that’s also due to being Robert De Niro and his ability to do more with a one-note role.
Hildur Guðnadóttir’s (Arrival, Sicario) magnificent score is the other highlight that takes the film to another level. The constant slo-mo with Phoenix flailing wildly wouldn’t be nearly the same Oscar bait catnip without the score.
Joker is going to leave some audiences thrilled at this re-imagining while others are going to be emotionally drained in a bad way.
Rating: 3 out of 10
Photo Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures