Todd Philips directs Joaquin Phoenix in Joker. Much has been written and said about how this movie is the definitive Joker performance that snatches that mantel away from Heath Ledger, who posthumously won an Oscar as supporting actor in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. There has been a lot of pre-release buzz about how this movie could trigger violence due to the incel manifesto. Is this genuinely a grim yet refreshing take on the comic-book genre or is it simply much ado about nothing?
Joaquin Phoenix plays Arthur Fleck a professional clown who suffers from pseudobulbar syndrome, this causes him to laugh out loud at inappropriate moments. But that is not all that makes him feel a little bit “off”. We are introduced to him at his weekly counselling sessions with a social worker, there is mention that he spent some time in the mental institution but that is not expanded upon. He gets picked on by bullies and lives with his mother. If all of this seems cliched its because it is. Philips and writer Scott Silver deploy every known trope to suggest that Fleck is nothing more than a loser. Instead of feeling sorry for the guy you are left fielding empty provocations. There are gaping plot holes which add up to nothing. His clown-league Randall played by Glen Flesher(Billions) hands him a gun and calls him “his guy” but rats him out to the boss. Joaquin Phoenix is coming hard for that Oscar – and Philips and Cinematographer Lawrence Sher keep zooming in on an emaciated Phoenix every chance they get highlighting the weight loss. Add to that the odd waltz/jazz dancing which isn’t a character trait we have been introduced to in what is supposedly an Origin story.
Gotham is always meant to be grim and crime infested but the Gotham of Joker is simply filthy, the graffiti is meant to evoke the grim and gritty underbelly of Gotham, but it fails to do so. The sense of gloom and despair is so oppressively shoved down the audiences throat that you are left essentially unmoved by the plight of the “clowns of Gotham” a Thomas Wayne reference that echoes the “basket of deplorables” from the 2016 presidential race. The Subway scene is constructed masterfully but all it does is act as an inflection point for a mass riot – the killing of 3 young wall street guys is termed to be the start of “Kill the rich” craze. There isn’t enough build up to warrant such a giant leap in the narrative.
I also found it particularly problematic how the women of colour are used as vessels for channelling Fleck’s mental illness, first it is the social worker, then the pretty neighbour and her daughter, then at the end the lady doing the mental health assessment. Some might say that it presents an unvarnished look at the mental illness and that it is revolutionary in its depiction or a guy going through a mental breakdown. That would be superficial in my opinion, the writers, the director and the actor do not delve into the psyche and only rely on the narrative crutches of economic anxiety, political unrest and societal breakdown to the point that it becomes psychosis-porn. Robert Di Nero is criminally underutilized given that Taxi Driver is a clear inspiration. Speaking of homages and Inspirations there are several including Nolan’s The Dark Knight with the joker leaving the mask in the bin and the scene where he is being taken in the back of a police car. And the scene with Di Nero harkens back to Network
Joaquin Phoenix is an amazing actor but he is done a greater disservice here that Casey Affleck did with his mockumentary I’m Still Here. The performance has some high points but is rendered empty, reductive and derivative. By attempting to do an Origin Story for what is essentially a villain and arguably batman’s nemesis the movie would have been more successful trying to make The Joker truly scary and fearsome, unstable yet unpredictable and wholly evil. Instead you are left baffled wondering how this guy is capable of raining down chaos on Gotham. Skip this and give The Dark Knight a rewatch atleast Ledger’s Joker is delightfully frightening!