Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (January 2, 2020)
Despite a tendency to view comic book-based movies as financial gold, some come with risks. In this category fell 2019’s Joker.
Given that the film took in more than $1 billion worldwide, these concerns now seem silly, but they felt logical in the run-up to the movie’s release. A dark character study with no Batman in sight didn’t sound like a recipe for box office cha-ching.
Joker struck a chord, though, and seems likely to influence the genre, with a strong probability we’ll see more efforts in this vein. Who can’t wait to see a brutal drama about Condiment King?
Set in Gotham City circa 1981, Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) lives a life of quiet desperation. He works as a not-very-successful clown who aspires to a career as a standup comic.
However, Arthur displays little real talent in that vein, and he suffers from various mental afflictions. One of these prompts him to laugh when anxious, a tendency that leads to problems during daily interactions.
Arthur’s mother Penny (Frances Conroy) deals with her own mental and physical ailments, and Arthur needs to tend to her. She used to work for local tycoon Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), and the delusional Penny believes that he’ll eventually lead the Flecks out of their semi-destitute situation.
Arthur suffers from the indignities of the city, as he gets beaten down both physically and mentally. These impact on his well-being and send him closer to a break, one in which he increasingly embraces the alter ego “Joker”.
While Joker gives us something different for its genre, it clearly wears its influences on its sleeve. Writer/director Todd Phillips emphasizes a heavy Martin Scorsese vibe, with a clear nod toward 1976’s Taxi Driver and 1983’s King of Comedy.
The latter element seems less obvious than the former but becomes no less apparent due to Arthur’s obsession with a local talk show host Murray Franklin. Phillips ensures we get the link via the presence of King’s Robert De Niro as Murray, a reversal since De Niro played the mentally unhinged Rupert Pupkin in the earlier film.
Despite the presence of such clear nods toward Scorsese’s work, Phillips manages to create a Joker that stands on its own. While some accuse it of offering little more than a Taxi Driver remake, the story manages to go down enough varying paths to mean such comments become misguided.
In particular, we get to know Arthur much better than we do Travis Bickle, and we empathize with Fleck a lot more. Joker doesn’t spoonfeed us Arthur’s backstory, but it manages to show the various ways society drags him down, and those elements help us bond with him.
Joker also acts as a surprisingly effective depiction of mental illness. Of course, Arthur suffers from much more severe issues than the average person, but the film still manages a good portrayal, especially in the manner that society tends to ignore these concerns.
While Arthur goes to a social worker, she mainly placates him with pills. This doesn’t occur because she doesn’t want to help, but instead, her office simply lacks the resources to do what needs to be done.
To a lesser degree, Joker also looks at the haves and have nots, a choice that occasionally feels a little heavy-handed. Thomas Wayne threatens to become an obvious stand-in for Donald Trump, and if the movie pursued that theme more fervently, it might grow tiresome.
However, these domains mostly stay in the background until the Joker-fueled class warfare at the end. The film dabbles in social concepts but it maintains a pretty tight focus on the lead character.
Which seems like the right choice, though this leads to the overriding question you’ll find with any Joker-related discussion: what really happened? Early on, we learn that Arthur acts as a wholly unreliable narrator, and the movie occasionally makes it obvious that we can’t believe everything it shows to us.
And maybe we can’t believe anything the film depicts. A more formal discussion of various notions and theories would lead me to spoilers, so I’ll skip that, but suffice it to say that the movie leaves various doors wide open and invites endless discussion and debate.
Heck, Phillips and others connected to the film have essentially said there is no real answer. Perhaps Phillips will someday change his tune and spell out his intentions in detail, but until/unless that happens, he invites interpretations and seems unwilling to rule out most.
On the surface, that frustrates, as filmgoers like to know the “real story”. I admit I feel some of that emotion as well, but I applaud Phillips’ choice, as the loose sense of reality we find here so strongly contrasts with the spoonfed tales we usually get.
Whatever the “reality” may be, Joker provides a tense, involving tale, one that gives the viewer a sense of dread. Some complain that the film moves too slowly, but I think the pacing works, as Phillips gradually draws us into Arthur’s existence.
A more action-oriented version might satisfy on a basic level, I guess. However, the film’s slow burn allows for stronger impact and creates a better-drawn universe.
Phoenix earned massive praise for his performance, and he deserves it. He plays a very different Joker than the one seen in prior movies, and he embodies this version in an amazing way.
Phoenix resists the urge to overact, and he makes an already-damaged Arthur’s slow descent into total madness natural and convincing. There’s virtually 100 percent chance he’ll get an Oscar nomination, and he earns it.
Dark and ugly, Joker offers something unusual in the realm of comic book flicks. It succeeds and becomes an unnerving and dynamic experience.