SHOULD I SEE IT?
The buzz is immense in ways both justified and problematic, but Joker is one of the most anticipated movies of 2019.
Joaquin Phoenix. He delivers a frightening, unsettling glimpse at a troubled man’s descent into madness and is nothing short of extraordinary in the role.
I’ll say this…it has the look of a fearless, risky, bold film project, heightened by terrific cinematography and a tremendous original score.
There’s a cowardice about all of this which is really hard to ignore.
Absolutely not for kids. Joker is also not for the superhero movie crowd. This has the look and feel of a gritty, independent film than a massive blockbuster from the DC or Marvel Universe.
Joker lacks conviction behind its social and political commentary and seems to simply want to agitate and unnerve its audience. Some will think its edgy, others will see right through it. Sadly, some may find it speaks to them personally.
Let’s set aside all the comparisons thrown at Joker, the new origin story for one of Batman’s most menacing foes. We could talk at length about the fact that the film is very similar to Martin Scorsese’s King of Comedy or calls to mind Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, both which starred Robert De Niro (who has a supporting role in this film).
Instead, let’s just focus on what’s in front of us, as if the film is a wholly original creation. Co-written and directed by Todd Phillips (The Hangover series, Old School), who has gone on record as saying that “woke culture” has ruined comedy nowadays, Joker is a movie which primarily tells us that there are horrors within a bleak societal comedy of how we fail to help or support those struggling to live day-to-day. Naturally, when your main character moves from part-time clown to a full-time murderous supervillain, it becomes easy to feel profound in making those assertions, citing one specific fictionalized example.
If only Phillips had the courage to stand behind his positions, perhaps Joker would be a film of substantive meaning and power. Instead, this movie puts a bunch of topics on the table and then kind of just looks around, dances around in front of you, as if that’s all it needs to do to make its case.
Without a doubt, Joker is powered by an incredible performance by Joaquin Phoenix, who transforms himself into a ticking timebomb of a man - Arthur Fleck. After a stint in a mental health hospital and seven different prescriptions to keep him functional, he takes care of his infirm mother (Frances Conroy) and works part-time as a clown-for-hire. He spins signs, performs at children’s hospitals, both of which turn out terribly for him as we will witness.
An attack on Arthur results in a fellow clown giving him a gun and a handful of bullets for protection. Like pouring gasoline on a fire, Arthur has a new tool in his coping toolbox. He’s intimidated by its presence at first, until it saves him from another attack on a subway late one night.
Once Arthur stands his ground, if you will, the death of three young Wall Street stockbrokers becomes not just a mystery as to who the shooter happens to be, but the action is seen by many as something of a heroic deed in a polarized early-1980’s Gotham City. Eventually, his obsession with a late-night talk show host (De Niro) turns Arthur to stand-up comedy, and, in turn, he befriends a single mother in his apartment complex (Zazie Beetz). With escalating income disparity, and wealthy businessman Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) running for Mayor, his son Bruce (yes, that Bruce Wayne), will soon cross paths with Arthur, as will Wayne’s family.
To focus on the Batman lineage is something of a misnomer, as Joker is almost exclusively about Arthur and his rapid unraveling from sanity. Phoenix lost over 50 pounds to transform himself into something resembling a skeletal, dying animal. His ribs and spine are alarmingly visible, his body resembling a bag of bones tenuously held together by a primal will to survive. Arthur suffers from an unnamed neurological condition, causing him to laugh when feeling anxious or upset. The manner with which Phoenix digs from within to make these laughs guttural, unsettling, and raw, only heightens the film’s desperation to be unnerving and feel as dangerous as frayed wires throwing a spark.
Shot like a gritty, independent film, cinematographer Lawrence Sher works within shades of darkness, making blasts of color profound and meaningful. The Emmy-winning composer Hildur Guðnadóttir creates an imposing, perilous landscape of music, increasing in its metallic grinds and jarring symphonic transitions. From a technical standpoint, it is hard to argue that Joker does not deliver effectively.
However, then we deal with a script which, again, says a lot without really saying anything at all.
If Phillips and co-writer Scott Silver’s intent was to make a political commentary on how society marginalizes, shuns, and discards the mentally ill, I am listening. If Joker is focused on using a supervillain origin story to point out the empty rhetoric many politicians use to try and curry votes, when nothing really ever changes for the disadvantaged in our country, this is absolutely worth exploring.
And yet, again and again - as bad things continue to happen to Arthur and his world unspools before him - we are given nothing of substance and merely one-note circumstances. Phillips’ film is so simple in its observations, that it creates the biggest mistake it could ever make: The only success it achieves is by being the loudest, most overbearing person in the room.
What happens to Arthur sends him on a path of nihilism and unrepentant criminal activity. Not every individual suffering the same circumstances he encounters finds that same escape. To throw a number of tangible, real-life arguments at a character who takes drastic and improbable steps to solve his situation is not only dishonorable, but borders on the offensive.
And at no time in Joker does Arthur have a reason for the things he’s doing. His actions are not, with one main exception on the subway, a direct cause-and-effect from one thing to the next. And again, if we are claiming that Arthur’s madness is a product of bad people doing bad things to him for essentially a lifetime, well Phillips can’t go to the media and claim “woke culture” is ruining pop culture and entertainment, then also claim we are not “woke” enough to pay attention to society’s failures to be considerate to those in need.
Are we leaving people behind because we are too politically correct and worried about offending people’s sensibilities? Or, are we blind to what’s happening around us?
Joker has no actual opinion, rendering the ultimate experience of sitting through this movie meaningless.
CAST & CREW
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen, Shea Whigham, Bill Camp, Glenn Fleshler, Leigh Gill, Marc Maron, Brian Tyree Henry.
Director: Todd Phillips
Written by: Todd Phillips, Scott Silver
Release Date: October 4, 2019