Todd Phillips’ new film Joker, starring Joaquin Phoenix, is a realistic take on the super villain that wants viewers to empathize as they watch him descend into homicidal madness. The best moments come from capitalizing on the medium of cinema during the strongest parts of the script, but it needed more of these moments.
Phillips has created something unique to comic book movies, and Phoenix brings a worthy performance. I believe the filmmakers made the movie they wanted to make, but the film doesn’t entertain like a Joker movie should, doesn’t take advantage of Gotham the way past directors have, and didn’t captivate me the way I had hoped.
ONCE UPON A TIME
Story & Script
Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) is a professional clown. The film begins with Fleck as a sign spinner outside an electronics store. He's beaten down by a group of hoodlums and then left to bleed because, hey… that’s life.
Arthur gets his clown gigs through some sort of agency or temp service made up of a motley crew of semi criminals and chain-smoking blue-collar types. The employees are all pretty underdeveloped.
At one point a particularly greasy co-worker gives Arthur a .38 special (pistol) for… what reason again? So Arthur can protect himself? So he can hold it over Arthur’s head later in the film?
Arthur has to visit his court-appointed shrink who seems to care about him a bit, but not really. This is where we see his first laughing fit — a condition Arthur got from a significant head injury that has rewired his brain to make him laugh in moments of great stress. This is quite possibly the most interesting part of the script, especially when paired with the fact that Arthur cleverly chooses professions that will mask his laughter to seem more as a choice rather than an unavoidable affliction.
One of the best parts of the film was the eerie relationship Phoenix cultivates with his attractive neighbor, Sophie, played by Zazie Beetz. She’s a single mother who is not only kind to Arthur but romantically interested. There is some impressive filmmaking craft used to make these moments really effective, and Phillips deserves a nod for his work during these parts of the film. There is just the right amount.
“Think” the theme of Taxi Driver meets the origin story of the Joker, but I didn’t understand or connect with Arthur the way I did with Travis Bickle. I wasn’t on the ride with him, because the events lacked the authenticity that drove the sentiments behind Taxi Driver.
Did You Know?
The filmmakers cite Alan Moore's comic "The Killing Joke," and the Martin Scorsese films Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980), and The King of Comedy (1982) as an influence on the film. It is also the first theatrical R Rated DC Comics film sinceWatchmen (2009).
Robert De Niro is one of the main characters in the film, which provides a connection to Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy. These films seem to be much better character studies than Joker, but Phillips makes a valiant effort. It's not easy to go toe-to-toe with Scorsese — or the Joker.
The big surprise moments of the film totally work. They work on a tonal level, on a filmmaking level, on a shock value level — they work. The rest of the film has an uphill battle which surrounds these really effective moments and tends to drag the movie down into quicksand.
By the Numbers
- Director: Todd Phillips
- Writer: Todd Phillips, Scott Silver
- Released: October 4, 2019
- Budget: $55 million (approx.)
LET'S ALL GO TO THE MOVIES
Most of the previous Joker iterations are highly entertaining, but I found myself annoyed during much of the film. The Joker’s entertainment value usually comes from his reckless abandon mixed with his savant-like approach to anarchy. His actions are both erratic and calculated, like a concert pianist hitting all the wrong keys at all the right times.
That concept is missing from this film — partly because Arthur is just sort of an inarticulate idiot in the most literal sense of the word. Joker as a comic book and movie character has traditionally been a truly extreme anarchist with no real filter, and even in The Dark Knight Trilogy Joker’s purpose was to inflict chaos on the self-righteous, but this movie suggests the Joker is a justified defender against a cruel world.
Unfortunately, I think the most compelling parts of the Joker as a character were thrown out during the adaptation. There are three kinds of weird: Good-weird, bad-weird, and weird-weird. This movie has all three, but just not enough of the good-weird.
In a surprising turn of events, the film goes too easy on superhero imagery. The attempt to inject this origin story with an authentic feel seems to undercut the unique style of the Joker, Gotham, and Batman comics. This human touch never really blossoms, and while The Dark Knight Trilogy showed how a gritty superhero movie can win the day, this movie shows us how realism in the genre can go too far.
Joaquin Phoenix gives a great performance, but something that confused me was how emaciated he was as the Joker, and additionally how excited Todd Phillips seemed to be to show this off to the viewer. It all seemed super edgy for the sake of edginess without any foundation.
Why is he so skinny? He’s not in a year-long bout with insomnia like Christian Bale’s character in The Machinist, nor has he contracted AIDS as Matthew McConaughey’s character had in Dallas Buyer Club.
Why do we need to watch Phoenix jet out his shoulder blades while he dances around his mother’s apartment other than to see how super committed he was to the role? A role that isn't traditionally this skinny?
SKILLS ON DISPLAY
There were some cool visuals from Cinematographer Lawrence Sher along with great use of framing, dutch angles, and extreme close-ups. I rarely got the comic book feeling one might hope for from a movie completely about the Joker. If David Ayer and his team went overboard with the Joker for Suicide Squad, this movie elects to underwhelm.
One interesting part of the film that was successfully hidden by the filmmaking was Penny’s story, with some interesting easter eggs that plant doubt in the viewer’s mind. It’s the closest to Christopher Nolan the film gets, and one of the most welcome aspects of the movie.
The overall filmmaking took the script as far as it could have gone, but I was never pulled into the character the way I’ve been in past iterations. One of the most visually striking moments came when a long push in at a comedy club while Arthur tries to hide his laughter while studying the jokes of another comedian. It was simultaneously eerie, sad, funny, and effective on almost every cinematic level.
The other really great part comes when Joker finally leans in on his persona, and dances down a large staircase to Gary Glitter’s Rock n Roll Part 2. It’s pure style and fun, and I think it’s something the movie could have used a bit more if I'm being perfectly honest.
There was also very little world-building. There was no connection to Gotham, and even the light connections to the comic book lore and characters seemed to be missing in action.
Gotham as an actual setting for the film is non-existent. We see Arkham Hospital at one point which has maintains the realistic aesthetic but we don't really feel the expanse of Gotham. When we do get to see the city it's pretty much devoid of any stylistic qualities attributed to the comics, animated series, and various movies that came before. I'm sure there is an argument for their take, but it didn't make me smile too much.
In fact, I get the feeling that true lovers of the comic will be disappointed in the portrayal of Gotham. At one point the city has sold-out showings of Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times. This is a homage that would be more welcome had it been The Man Who Laughs.
This moment is interesting because Joker walks into a movie theater mid-presentation. He seems to be enraged, and I won’t ignore that it seemed to intentionally evoke the Aurora theater shooting, and when you see Thomas Wayne in the box seating seemed to suggest some link to President Lincoln’s assassination at the Ford Theater.
IN THE LONG RUN
The script takes liberties with the overall Batman lore, but I didn’t mind the novel approach until the third act where the symbolism ties to the events of the plot seemed less profound than they may have planned.
Hypothetically, if the studio were to continue with a Batman franchise in the style of this film, I’m afraid to say it wouldn’t work all that well.
When you’re making a movie about the Joker you’re ultimately going up against 70 years of comics, amazing blockbuster films, a few really bad movies, and a ton of die-hard fans. You have to bring something truly remarkable to the table as far as entertainment goes.
If this movie taps into something on a deeper level I’d be surprised.
It may resonate with some, but I still wanted more grand plans, more scenes that took advantage of the world. It was already going to be different by being the villain's movie. Why not make it a bit more fun?
No elaborate crimes, no reckless abandon, just very little fun. IT wouldn't have been easy to do both at the same time which is why I wish the filmmakers would have just made a super fun Joker movie.
The film became oddly political at times, but also touches on a range of issues like wealth inequality, elitism, and mental illness but didn't touch on true chaos and anarchy the way I had hoped.
At one point Thomas Wayne calls the downtrodden citizens “clowns” a la Hilary Clinton’s “deplorables”. It’s a joke that didn’t really seem to land. Personally, I don’t love overt political messages in films unless it’s the whole point of the movie, but I really don’t like glib political messages.
Give me anarchy. Give me chaos. Just don’t give me a sermon.