Joaquin Phoenix … Arthur Fleck
I’ve got to hand it to Joker. In a world where every almost movie is a setup to a larger cinematic universe or a sequel or team-up, it does the incredibly refreshing thing of ignoring that irritating style of storytelling. That are certainly moments shown that tie to larger ideas of the DC Universe, but not anything we don’t already know as readers/viewers and nothing that will be picked up in a later movie (hopefully). For that, it has my respect. But when you get into the details of the film itself, it doesn’t entirely come together cohesively. Some might argue this is intentional, that the subject character is so mysterious that of course a movie about him would be spinning a lot of plates. The problem is that it only spins a few of them well while most crash on the floor to a jaunty tune.
Joaquin Phoenix leads the film as its titular clown, elevating the sophomoric script with a performance that owes a lot to Robert De Niro (his co-star) in Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, while also picking up the baton Phoenix put down with The Master. It’s always interesting to watch, but frankly never feels like new territory for him. That is until he puts on the character’s version of the Joker make-up near its climax. As the film dives into its Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer descent, there’s little to enjoy, but when he puts on his happy face and jaunts around to Rock & Roll Part 2 (the infamous song from many an American sporting event as performed by convicted sex offender Gary Glitter, yet another grotesque and sleazy choice from the filmmakers) it feels like the kind of instantly recognizable “Joker” motifs that have become fan favorites over the years. The rest of the cast of Joker feel like shadows in the wings of a one man show. Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, and Frances Conroy all have sizable parts in the tale at large (and do good work), but this the Joker movie and Phoenix takes the spotlight.
A major highlight of the film is in its cinematography, as DP Lawrence Sher paints a broad a beautiful picture of a disgusting city. It has the highs and lows from Tim Burton’s Gotham in 1989, but has a legitimacy that can’t be replicated on a New York decorated back lot. The lights and shadows of each corner and alley feel real and lively in a way that most CG-overloaded comic book movies can’t even dream of. There’s a tactile nature on display that keeps the visuals from never going into dull and dreary territory. Joker looks amazing, and would be breathtaking in a 70 mm presentation.
The primary issue is the film’s screenplay, which has all of the depth of a freshman dorm room wall. Director Todd Phillips and co-writer Scott Silver have built a foundation with interesting ideas, but whose sloppy support beams can’t shoulder all of its ambition. There are so many different ideas at play with regard to social-political movements and ways of life, but few come together in a way that is satisfying, interesting, or even has something to say.
Therein lies perhaps the actual thesis for Joker, do these big social movements get started for reasons unintended by the person that kick-started them? Does society sometimes prescribe a connotation or belief onto something where there isn’t one? Can one person ignite a movement larger than themselves when there was no intention behind their original action? It’s an interesting idea that certainly requires contemplation with how the film handles the material, but it gets lost in a slog of critiques of PC culture, wealth inequality, and union busting that all ultimately go nowhere. In the end I don’t think even Joker knows what it wants us to consider about these larger questions, but I think that it does bring up interesting points about them.
Joker is not a movie that should exist to be frank. It’s not a sequel, it’s not developing a niche corner of a world, and it’s not a bridge ahead of a team-up. It’s a dark descent that feels gross and underwritten at times, but familiar and impressive in its final moments. I wasn’t sure when the film was over if I liked it, and I’m not even sure now if it’s something I would say that about, but I haven’t stopped thinking about it. Joker is a tough watch that is not entirely rewarding but is ambitious enough to swing for the fences when it sees the opportunity.
Rating: 6 / 10