Quick Hit: Viscerally powerful despite being an overall mixed message.
I absolutely did not think I was going to like this movie. I was worried I would come out of it comparing Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker to the wide variety of Jokers (most of them excellent – sorry Jared Leto) and thinking that he was going to fall short. But Joaquin did what he does, and he gave a performance that is absolutely Oscar worthy. And all while starring in a film that seems to idolize Martin Scorsese by the guy who directed The Hangover. What a world that we live in folks.
Phoenix disappears into the role of Arthur Fleck, a man with a sad, sad life. He takes jobs as part of a clowning agency, and watches late night talk shows with his mom at night. To top it all off, he takes a boatload of medication and visits a social worker who eventually has to pull the plug on his fragile support to sanity. Oh – and he has a disorder where he laughs uncontrollably, largely at inappropriate times. A failed stand-up attempt gets on him on the radar of Gotham, but he’s also found a way to rile a city that seems to be built on a powder keg – a self-defense turned gleeful murder.
Phillips creates a Gotham city that seems to invoke LA prior to the race riots, or New York during the famous garbage strikes. The powder keg that is the city is similar to what happened here in St. Louis in Ferguson after the Michael Brown verdicts. He does this largely with colors, full of yellows and browns. He somehow manages to have everything seem dingy, and that includes the moments of action as well, which do nothing to glorify some extreme violence. Really the only thing that I can fault him is seeming to emulate Scorsese a little too much – at times I expected De Niro to say “You talkin’ to me?”.
Speaking of actors, De Niro is in this, which completes the feeling of Scorsese. While he does a good job playing what is essentially a Johnny Carson/Jay Leno role. But no one even approaches Phoenix, who fully commits (like he always does) physically. The last role I saw him in was a bulky assassin in You Were Never Really Here. Now he’s slimmer than ever, which creates a character in Fleck who is all angles and bones. His laugh is anything but gleeful, and every single interaction with other characters seems well-thought out and full. It’s truly an Oscar worthy performance.
There are a few issues with this film though. The first is that largely it seems to forget that it’s trying to set up a back story for The Joker, from The Batman comics. This leads to a few world-building attempts that don’t seem to fit with the tone of the rest of the film. The second issue is that it largely makes Arthur Fleck a slightly sympathetic character. And this is a man that murders people, extremely violently. It shows the effect that someone who has mental health issues could have – and in that it fails, because it makes mental health the bad guy.
Whatever your reasons, I think most superhero audiences will leave this film disgusted or bored. But I was riveted the whole time. I’m giving it an “A-“.
For more on this film, check out IMDB.
"All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy"