Courtesy of Warner Bros.
Todd Phillips’ edgy dive into the DC comics realm with his subversive, and sure to be audience-dividing, “Joker” shows signs of a filmmaker and actor touching on the surface of something special. Yet for as wildly ambitious as “Joker” is, it’s an extremely unoriginal film that’s probably, by default, the boldest thing Phillips has done in his nearly twenty year career. Considering his film tackles inherent themes of mental sickness and civility in a corrupt society (ideologies not explored in either of the three “Hangover” films) Phillips at the very least tries to stimulate an emotional response.
Owing as much inspiration to Martin Scorcese’s “Taxi Driver” and “The King of Comedy,” Phillips’ “Joker” is a character study that happens to be about the DC cinematic universe's most notorious bad boy. Though the film is peppered with random, sudden bursts of graphic violence, “Joker” doesn’t have superheroes in spandex coming to save the day, nor does it feature a dozen CGI battle sequences to beef up the run-time. Perhaps that’s its greatest strength is how it doesn’t play into type, and featuring an Academy Award worthy performance from Joaquin Phoenix doesn’t hurt either.
But there’s something off about “Joker,” and the way it romanticizes gun violence, incites riots made by a disillusioned white man covered in clown makeup is hard to ignore (not to mention the political subtext at hand). In some ways, the conversations that’ll arise after screenings of “Joker” are noteworthy, yet in the face of our current climate who's to say someone doesn’t see this film and become empowered to carry out events similar to what happens on screen? The violence in this movie is meant to shock, and it does.
Much has been made by Warner Bros of the fact this is meant as a “standalone” feature, and is loosely based on the comics (though, Phillips has been on the record saying this film is not based on anything). So there’s no narrative connection happening with the rest of the shared universe, but the way the studio has been changing Batman every year, maybe they mean what they say when this could be the only DC movie that’s getting slapped with an R rating.
A rating which it has no problem earning. Starting from Phoenix who flails, dances, laughs maniacally, shoves things in his mouth that shouldn’t be there, and commits a couple of gruesome and disgusting crimes with a smile. Phoenix is fun to watch get inside the crazy psychosis of Arthur Fleck, a deeply disturbed individual who, at the top of the film, is applying his makeup for a lousy day job as a clown for hire in what looks like 1980s Gotham, but you can tell Phillips wants his movie to be taken so seriously, that it almost undermines Phoenix's performance.
In a strange way, Phillips seems too afraid to push his themes further, leaving much of the interpretation in Phoenix's beaten down and transformative character arch. Starting when a squad of teenagers walloping him over the head with a wooden sign and leaving the depressed sap in the street. He’s a loser at his lowest, and in the evening goes home to take care of his ailing mother (Frances Conroy) who constantly tells him how he was put on this earth to spread joy and cheer. This on account of a medical condition that causes Fleck to uncontrollably laugh whenever he’s nervous or anxious (even carrying around a laminated card to give to empathetic strangers explaining the disorder when given strange looks). So he tells his social worker how he thinks life is a comedy, and his desire to be a stand-up comedian.
Much of that desire is because Fleck is fixated with late-night talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro doing his best Johnny Carson) in another similar nod to “Taxi Driver” and entirely flipping the “King of Comedy” narrative. Equally, he has feelings for a black woman down the hall (Zazie Beetz from “Deadpool 2”), clearly meant to evoke all the feels for Diahnne Abbott. Beetz isn’t really given much to do other than be a pawn in this dirty chess match, until a late game changing realization saves her character from being a complete waste.
In the backdrop of Arthur’s descent into madness, Gotham is beginning to crumble. Starting with a garbage strike and then elevating to the city wide infestation of “Super Rats” - to which a news anchor says can only be stopped with “Super Cats.” Fleck, who has suddenly found himself as an underground leader of a vigilante uprising after murdering three rich frat boys, doesn’t know how to comprehend his new found glory. Meanwhile, his mother has been writing letters to her former employer, Thomas Wayne, only for Arthur to open one of them and discover some shocking revelations.
These plot points aren’t a total bust, yet the parallels between “Joker” and, say, another Warner Bros. classic “A Clockwork Orange” are immediate with supporting players, including Glenn Flesler, Brian Tyree Henry (and the always great Bill Camp), elevating their respective scenes, but Phillips borrows all his tone and look from other, better movies that you’d assume he could create a better origin tale than “man goes mad because of mental illness and child abuse.” Yet he doesn’t.
Give credit to cinematographer Lawrence Sher whose found the right colors in the camera and creates an exceptionally old-fashioned and glossy looking Gotham city. In a film devoid of any originality, the decision Sher and Phillps take with their close-ups and wide angles create some of the more interesting sequences in the film.
Still, some will love this movie and become engulfed in how quickly Phoenix loses himself in a role that’ll warrant much discussion, and though the online fan-base will no doubt start Reddit threads detailing how DC has found their artistic stride, it’s hard to think “Joker” could be labeled as a “risk” in the eyes of a studio willing to drop $60 million on a strong IP. It’s a flimsy narrative held together on the idea of how fear is what’s going to deconstruct societal norms with Phoenix doing just enough to give the film some pedigree.
Somewhere in “Joker,” there’s a more audacious film lurking beneath the surface, yet there’s no denying how the discourse that’ll soak up the airwaves upon the films release is exactly the type of conversation the iconic villain would want us to have.
Whether we like it or not, the joke’s on us.
Warner Bros is set to release Joker on October 4th 2019, and the film was screened at the Toronto International Film Festival.