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~Review by Grawlix (October 2019)
Joker is unlike any other movie featuring a major comic book property. There are no wild, highly choreographed action scenes, no CGI fireworks (I could honestly detect little to no CGI enhancement of any kind, though I’m sure there was some in there somewhere. There always is.), and, ironically, very little humor. The story it tells is very close and personal, often uncomfortably so, with the spotlight rarely taken off a protagonist who is simultaneously sympathetic but also often not particularly likeable. It doesn’t play like a modern comic book movie at all, certainly not one that purports to tell the origin story of one of the most infamous archvillains of the medium, but this is to its credit. In an oddly appropriate way, Joker is resolute about doing things its own way.
In Joker we’re introduced to Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix). Fleck works as a clown-for-hire but dreams of making it big as a comedian. These aspirations are hampered somewhat by a litany of mental issues, including the unfortunate tendency to laugh uncontrollably (and usually inappropriately) seemingly in substitute for other stressful emotions. In his free time, Arthur takes care of his mother, Penny (Frances Conroy, who’s extended stint on American Horror Story likely colored her performance), an invalid with her own set of neuroses, not all of which are immediately apparent.
We’re also introduced to late-70’s Gotham City, a filthy, crime-ridden concrete jungle, not unlike 1970’s New York, particularly as depicted in films like Death Wish, Dog Day Afternoon, or Taxi Driver. It’s not an environment much inclined to laughter, and after Fleck is beaten by a gang of youths, seemingly for no reason, a co-worker offers him a gun for protection in the future. Unfortunately, the volatile combination of firearms and mental illness mix about as well as might be expected, leading to Fleck losing his job and having one hell of a bad day. He makes an attempt at standup comedy during an open mic night, but his act bombs so badly that a recording of it ends up the target of ridicule of Murray Franklin (Robert DeNiro), a late-night talk show host previously enjoyed by both Arthur and his mother. The clip is so popular, in fact, that Arthur is invited onto Franklin’s show as a guest. In other circumstances this would be a dream come true and possibly the big break he’s always dreamed of, but by this point Fleck’s life has run so far off the rails that he has a totally different plan in mind for how to use his fifteen minutes of fame.
I’ll state this right up front; Joaquin Phoenix absolutely crushes it as Arthur Fleck. One can only imagine there was a certain degree of trepidation, after Heath Ledger’s death and Jared Leto’s much publicized erratic behavior, in casting one of the most committed method actors this side of Daniel Day Lewis as the man who would become the Joker, but Phoenix’s mastery of the character is absolute and his fully committed performance will make you believe. This is good, because the focus is on him for nearly the entire two-hour running time and it is not a two hours that passes easily. True to form, it’s one really bad day that starts Fleck down the path of becoming something that’s simultaneously far greater and far less that what he starts as, but once the blows start coming, they don’t stop and seeing him menaced by the twin demons of the unfairness of his life and the chaos of his mind is wearying and exhausting right up to the point he finally gives in and allows The Abyss to swallow him.
It doesn’t help that there isn’t much in the way of normality for Phoenix’s Fleck to play off of. He has a social worker (Sharon Washington) who offers advice and supplies his medication until the funding gets cut. And later on, Murray Franklin seems reasonably well adjusted though it’s clear that his celebrity still sets him apart from the average person. But his mother is clearly not well, his early co-workers are literally clowns, a would-be love interest (Zazie Beetz) ends up harboring her own share of secrets, and of course there’s the backdrop of a simmering class war that ensures the outside world itself always holds a certain degree of tension and uncertainty.
It’s this class war subplot that adds Thomas Wayne to the story, played by Brett Cullen (who’s mostly known for recurring TV roles but has appeared in both Ghost Rider and The Dark Knight Rises, so he has some genre cred). Wayne (father to Bruce, if you didn’t know) is an ultra-rich businessman who believes that Gotham’s unrest is the result of the undisciplined poor failing to bootstrap themselves into prosperity and is considering a mayoral run to give the city the leadership he believes it’s lacking. It’s a considerably more unsympathetic portrayal of the character than the Batman franchise usually offers, particularly since Wayne seems completely ignorant of the role the rich are playing in the criminal degradation of Gotham. It’s also the weakest element in the movie generally. While it’s clear that director Todd Phillips wanted to make sure he worked some degree of the traditional Batman mythos into the film, a subplot that purports to maybe, but maybe not, link the origins of the two characters felt forced and superfluous.
Comparisons to movies like Taxi Driver are unavoidable but also apt and not unfounded. From the casting of De Niro, whose Murray Franklin expertly toes the line between affable professional and sleazy dirtbag, not unlike his Travis Bickle from forty years prior, to a scene where Arthur postures and practices delivering lines with his gun. There is also clear inspiration drawn from the real-life Bernie Goetz incident from 1984, and all of the violence in the movie is gritty, chaotic, and brief, as opposed to the polished and stylized stunt crew dances of most other superhero films. I don’t fault Phillips for any of this. Being that up until Joker his entire oeuvre consisted of zany comedies (the best known of which were probably the three Hangover movies) it’s only natural he’d look to the best inspiration he could find. What’s more impressive is how well he manages to duplicate the feel and tone of the earlier classics. Joker is a movie that never allows its audience to fully relax. Between Fleck’s unpredictable outbursts, and a Gotham City in possession of a bottomless font of misery and indignity ready to unleash at a moment’s notice, even the quieter moments carry an undeniable foreboding of what’s to come.
Joker’s greatest triumph, the thing allows me to forgive virtually all of its (admittedly minor) issues, is that it finally breaks free of the mold of the “comic book movie”. Even other R-rated comic book films like the Punisher, Deadpool, and Logan made sure to tick the standard boxes of comic action and storytelling, they just did it with harsher language and more graphic violence. Joker is generally not preoccupied with ticking boxes that aren’t in direct service to the story. The closest major comic book adaptations that might compare to Joker are Watchmen and maybe some of the Netflix Marvel series (like their Punisher) but even then, the former played more to comic tropes than not (inverted though they often were) and the latter seemed hamstrung by limitations on its content while Joker enthusiastically embraces its R-rating. It’s finally living proof of something that comic book fans have known for a while: that even well-known franchises and characters are about more than musclebound dudes in spandex punching each other across a city. That sometimes there is a level of mature, adult, nuanced storytelling that is more than capable of supporting a movie without all the usual comic book bells and whistles. I kind of hope that they don’t try to expand Joker into its own franchise, trying to work Batman’s cowl and utility belt into the world that Joker has created probably wouldn’t work without some severe compromise. But presently, and on its own, Joker stands tall.
Final Grade: A
Roger Ebert once said that the difference between 1970’s Hollywood and today was that in the 70’s studios would try to make the best movie they could and hoped it was profitable whereas today studios try to make the most profitable movie they can and hope that it’s good. Joker was clearly made with quality in mind over profitability. And, what do you know, it’s now the highest grossing R-Rated film of all time. One can only hope this is the start of a trend. Joker may not be the most fun time you spend at the cinema, but its willingness to cast genre conventions by the wayside make it essential viewing.
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