2019 | rated R | starring Joaquin Phoenix, Robert DeNiro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy | directed by Todd Phillips | 2 hrs 2 mins |
Thundering into theaters frontloaded with blanket marketing and bizarre stories of an 8-minute Venice Film Festival standing ovation, people who mistakenly think the Joker inspired the Aurora, CO theater shooting, hand-wringing from violence-in-movie types and polarized takes from critics, Todd Phillips’ stand-alone take on the Batman villain, Joker, quickly became a conversation piece. Similar to Christopher Nolan telling a mafia crime story through the lens of Batman characters with the modern classic The Dark Knight, Phillips pulls the Joker through a prism of Martin Scorsese anti-hero character studies and attempts to capture the 2019 class warfare zeitgeist in the process.
Though mostly known for The Hangover and Old School, Phillips’ last several movies had a dark, frustrated streak that explodes all over this one. Mixing the slow-burn character spiral of Taxi Driver with the awkward darkness of The King of Comedy and a dash of the anarchist uprising of Fight Club, Joker looks and feels like a lot of really great movies who have covered this ground before in much more clever ways. Where Travis Bickle wanted to clean New York of the scum, gangsters and hookers in the streets, the Gotham City that Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix, so perfectly cast here he makes this mad-role look effortless) trudges through is literally full of trash bags from a garbage strike. Where The King of Comedy mined it’s character’s obsession for dark industry satire, Joker would rather moralize than satirize having Fleck come out of states of hallucinations and hysteria to articulate his issues with funding being cut for his mental health program and wealthy gate-keepers who decide what’s funny. Where Tyler Durden inspired a following by proposing a Swiftian solution for a crowd looking for answers, Fleck just kills rich people. The movie is under-written but stuffed with ideas, tackling all of them in the biggest, broadest possible way.
Joker is a movie that really tries to be it’s own thing, desperately cutting ties with the rest of the DC Batman universe around it (making the age difference between Bruce Wayne and Fleck irreconcilably huge, doing it’s best to say that this joker would never grow into The Dark Knight’s Joker), while at the same time fancying itself an origin story stitched out of pieces of DC lore that feel tacked on by the studio (my favorite detail in the film is the cult George Hamilton movie that Thomas Wayne apparently saw before they walked into that fateful alley). The movie is one long, unnecessary exposition piece for a character that doesn’t need a back story (particularly after Heath Ledger’s anarchist Joker so gleefully mocked the idea of backstories), piling on tragic misfortune on tragic misfortune. Fleck has mother and father issues, looses his therapist and his job, and he’s insane at the movie’s outset. People go mad for far less than this, but that’s the movie – it’s pitched toward the back row.
I think often times when a movie becomes this divisive, the love it or hate it crowds are seeing two different things. One) the story it tells or Two) how it tells the story. Audience are very forgiving of a poorly made movie if the story is compelling (Bohemian Rhapsody) and critics generally forgiving of a messy story if the movie is well made or ambitious (Star Wars: The Last Jedi). Ultimately those two things pull the movie more toward the middle. Joker is a goofy, trite, deeply predictable story, but Phillips really swings for the fences with it. It looks great. The shots, the color palette, just enough slow motion at just the right moments. Phillips’ visual style is so classically inspired that it makes the Scorsese references feel more homage than rip-off. The problem is that the movie doesn’t build anything off of that homage. It strikes one note the entire running time.
Phoenix and Phillips don’t have a lot to work with, but they make a meal out of what they have. Phoenix, born to play this role, chewing every inch of the scenery and Phillips milking every moment into a delusional celebration. We’ve also got Robert DeNiro looking like he’s making an effort for the first time in 20 years and Zazie Beetz (Deadpool 2) lending some charm and personality to the film. The final act, the King of Comedy section in which Arthur Fleck becomes The Joker, has it’s moments of tension – so it’s not all a total loss.
Joker is Todd Phillips’ work of grimy anarchy giving the Marvel generation their anti-hero. It has a lot of ideas rattling around. It’s mad as hell, but it doesn’t really know at what, waffling around between comedy and healthcare and rich people, ranting about each with all the worldly pontification of a college kid in a bean bag chair. Dare I say, it’s a by-product of the Star Wars prequels – where an entire generation were told that good writing meant every character had to have a labored dramatic “backstory”. It’s one thing to turn our comic book supervillains into anguished lonely people with mental disorders, but it’s another to over-explain a character that has power in their mystery. Joker follows remakes of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Nightmare on Elm Street and Halloween – to name a few – that flatten out their villain by removing the mystery and making him more relatable. Joker is neither a particularly good origin story or a stand-alone journey-into-madness movie.