Running Time: 122 minutes
Written by: Todd Phillips and Scott Silver
Directed by: Todd Phillips
Featuring: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen, Glenn Fleshler, Bill Camp, Shea Whigham and Marc Maron
Arthur Fleck: “I used to think that my life was a tragedy, but now I realize, it’s a comedy.”
Released in theaters last week was the global phenomenon “Joker” (2019) which offers some kind of insight into a version of the origins of the titular character and Batman arch enemy as well as attempting to offer some insight into not only why this man became who he became but is a reflection of at least part of the world we inhabit today. As with the origins of this character the origins of this film are unique as well with some unorthodox people behind the camera as well as in front of which may help to explain why this film seems fresh especially after all the misfires that have been produced by Warner Brothers under their DCEU banner. There are few linkages to the wider comic book universe as well as no attempt at all to link it to any other comic book movie that has come before, with this baggage jettisoned what audiences are finding is something that requires little first hand knowledge but is still recognizable in the wider DC universe, although with a much harder edge as well as some true social and political commentary. The other major element, one that really makes the film watchable even if you either do not enjoy the political/social commentary, or agree with where the narrative takes the plot is the singular performance of the main actor, Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck who firstly devolves into someone he hates, then evolves into the identity of Joker, where of course he remains for the rest of his life.
Wisely the filmmakers, basically Todd Phillips, have taken the city of Gotham, transposing it to the beginning of the 1980s as well as making it a cypher of the then New York. At the time New York was known as a crime ridden, dirty place that was filled with crime, over 250 felonies a week were committed as well as rampant crime being the main form of employment for the underclass. “Joker” explores that as well as making it a motif for the background and foreground, almost everything has a layer of dirt, nothing is clean, in fact the same thing can be said for almost all the characters, especially Arthur and his mother who both hide secrets that are revealed by the end of the film. In terms of narrative this is an extremely busy film with multiple storylines that do reach their conclusion, but those elements are the weakest of the entire film, as is the shoehorning of the Waynes, which seems like something mandated, not natural at all. I would have been much happier if Bruce and his cohorts had been left out of this film completely, these all rang hollow, becoming distracting to the main plot which is completely fascinating made almost perfect because of the skill of Phoenix to break down a charater onscreen, then rebuild him in front of your eyes.
This film also owes a huge debt to Martin Scorsese in not only its portayal of Gotham as New York, but also in three of his finest films in “Mean Streets” (1972), “Taxi Driver” (1975) and “The King of Comedy” (1985) all quintessential New York films and perfect examples of character pieces built around Robert De Niro in his prime. What is refreshing is that Phillips and Phoenix have not just copied these examples but have used them as starting points to create something that is almost as good as advertised, the weakness is of course that this is still a comic book movie so it falls into some predictable tropes as well as far too much winking at the audience. In other regards “Joker” nods its heart towards David Fincher’s adaptation of “Fight Club” (1999), it can be no coincidence that this arrives twenty years after that similarly themed film, looking back it was far ahead of its time in response to the intervening years that have passed.
Of course the other main segment of this movie is the narrative that is used to wrap the plot up in which is a little murky to say the least. This film strives to encompass so many parts of todays society in terms of politics, religion, the media, social justice, mental health, homelessness, degradation, social media and of course the true power of personality that we see all over this film as well as all over the media landscape today. What the filmmakers have done is to wrap their story up into not only a comic book movie, but also a period piece and a character study that in some cases acts as a reinforcement for some of the more problematic movements existing in 2019 such as incels, personalty politics, fake news, the woke movement and of course one of the underlying issues in existence, social media.
No matter what your opinion is of co-writer/director Todd Phillips who up to now has been known for the broadest, crudest and the most male dominated comedies, here he has pivoted to take much of his past and pouring that into a drama that is still a fairly run of the mill comic book origin story. Many of the differences within the style of “Joker” are what make it compelling with the vast amount of wide shots, coupled with the use of the slow push in which offer an insight into the main characters mind. Not only that but we see long shots on the main character that drive home the idea that this is his story which are designed to also make the audience as uncomfortable as possible as he is deconstructed before our eyes. This is a finely honed film from its casting, to its use of mise en scène, costuming, locations, scripting and its (possible) setting within the DCEU, so the fact that it has been a worldwide box office phenomenon made on a relatively modest budget speaks to an audience crying for something that is contained within this story, Phillips and his crew have been able to expertly tap into this which speaks to the talent of the director as auteur.
“Joker” is ostensibly set in 1981 and is based around the character of Arthur Fleck who works as a clown-for-hire and lives with his mother, Penny, in Gotham City. The city is collapsing under unemployment, crime, and financial ruin, leaving segments of the population disenfranchised and impoverished. Arthur suffers from a neurological disorder that causes him to laugh at inopportune times, and regularly visits a social services worker to obtain medication. This is a very different origin story but does follow a heroes journey of sorts that is warped to fit this newish paradigm of story telling. Needless to say there is a point the narrative that folds in a Batman story as well as his origin which really is the only weak part of this film.
As I have mentioned one of the main reasons to seek “Joker” out is the central performance of Joaquin Phoenix who has proven himself through the years to be one of the greatest modern onscreen actors of modern times. Here Phoenix carries out exactly what he does best, that is take a unique possibly misunderstood charater, breaks him down then puts onscreen something truly unique even though we have seen the same character through many different incarnations. I have no doubt that there will be at the very least an Oscar nomination on the horizon for Phoenix. Wisely Phoenix is not left to carry the film on his own with excellent performances given by Frances Conroy as his mother, Robert De Niro in a scene stealing turn as a talk show host and up and coming Zazie Beetz as a somewhat love interest.
Whilst “Joker” has indeed dominated the box office as well as critic lists for the past three weeks it is by no means a perfect film, for all its commentary on a variety of issues it still remains a comic book movie, and an origin story with all that entails. We see the rise of the main character through adversity, the discovery of his true purpose as well the invention of a nemesis which really offer nothing new at all within the genre, which on the surface I found profoundly disappointing. All of the tropes from similar genres are there, you could even tick them off they are that predictable. There are, however a few elements that are present that make this a step above almost all other comic book movies, they are the obvious performance of Phoenix which is by the greatest singular performance in a comic book movie ever, by a lead. The other two elements are the relaxed but definite style by which this film has been produced, coupled with the distinct lack of special effects and CGI, lending this film to be adult oriented than many before it. Couple that with the obvious messages around social media, cult leaders and followers as well as the kind of politics that we find ourselves in, this new “Joker” not only deserves to be seen but in cinemas to gain the full impact of the themes and messages buried within.