It’s been a while since a movie has been heralded with as much hype and notoriety as Joker. It’s caused panic and outrage on one end of the media spectrum as well as receiving the highest levels of praise from critics on the other. Joker is a gritty exploration about a mentally ill party clown who becomes one of the most infamous villains of the comic book world. This standalone origin story about the downfall of wannabe stand up comedian Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) and rise of the criminally insane Batman baddie proved to be disappointing, even when forgetting the unparalleled hype surrounding its story and Phoenix’s transformation into this iconic villain.
It’s 1981. Gotham City is plagued with unemployment, crime and a growing population of restless, impoverished and angry citizens. Amongst them is Arthur Fleck, a party clown with aspirations of becoming a stand up comedian, living with his mother Penny (Frences Conroy) in an old, rundown apartment. He suffers from a condition that causes him to laugh uncontrollably at inappropriate times and must see a social services worker in order to obtain his medication. His uncontrollable laughter, mixed with the increasing antisocial behaviour amongst Gotham’s citizens, leads to some violent encounters for him that worsens the alienation he already feels towards society.
Even though he finds some level of happiness in his life when he starts to date the beautiful Sophie Dumond (Zazie Beetz) who lives down the hall, things start to turn more chaotic when he’s no longer able to get his medication. After experiencing his first kill while defending himself from a group of rich pricks, Arthur begins to give into his darker nature as he uncovers the sad and traumatic truth about his past. With a political movement inspired by his murders and a frenzy fanned by ill-received comments of mayoral candidate billionaire Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), Arthur realizes he needs to accept his true nature instead of trying to resist it. Of course, this doesn’t bode well for the city of Gotham and the parents of a young Bruce Wayne (Dante Pereira-Olson).
Joaquin Phoenix’s acting in Joker is nothing short of incredible. Despite whatever issues I have with the story and how this iconic character is portrayed in this film, there’s simply no denying he gives a truly Oscar-worthy performance. Phoenix lost a crazy amount of weight to portray the underweight and malnourished look of a man who feels beaten down everyday by society. He has a unique take on the Joker’s laugh that perfectly conveys the neurological disorder Arthur Fleck suffers from that causes physical pain and inhibits his ability to breath properly. His sunken eyes and gaunt features amplify the menace and suffering his character embodies. His disturbed portrayal of Arthur Fleck is so impressive it actually ruins the full transformation from Arthur Fleck to the Joker.
It might seem strange, but believe it or not the character of Arthur Fleck is creepier and more sinister than when he eventually becomes the Clown Prince of Crime. So much of the film revolves around the suffering and troubling persona of Arthur Fleck, the one that Phoenix was clearly most invested in, that when he finally steps out as the green-haired villain it’s almost laughable at how unimpressive he is. The make-up, the manner in which he speaks, pales in comparison to the crazed maniac of Arthur Fleck and all that’s left by the film’s climax is a whiny guy dressed as a clown.
What makes the eventual transformation into the Joker so underwhelming is how this iteration of this iconic character is portrayed as being little more than a bumbling killer. He shows no aptitude for being a leader. No charisma. No special skills for being able to devise any kind of serious plan. His crimes are more opportunistic. Nothing is really calculated – except the ending – like the portrayal of Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight.
Factor in his struggles with determining what’s real and what isn’t and we’re left with an interpretation of Joker that is never going to amount to any kind of serious threat to the Caped Crusader. This is the guy that’s supposed to become Batman’s arch nemesis? What a joke – pun intended!
Director Todd Phillips (Hangover Trilogy, Starsky & Hutch) has made a film that’s much darker and more psychologically complex than the comedies he’s known for, and much different than your standard comic book summer blockbuster. It’s an exploration into a very damaged mind that really shouldn’t have been a Joker movie once the credits roll, and we glimpses of how this might’ve been its real intention. While the cinematography is often quite beautiful, the story should be front and center, and perhaps a script rewrite hinting at the development of abilities that could lead Arthur Fleck into becoming a real adversary to Batman might’ve helped this otherwise well constructed film more compelling.
Instead we’re given scene after scene of Arthur laughing and strutting around showcasing his ribcage to really drive home how much weight Pheonix lost. There’s repetition of scenes hammering home the fact he’s severely mentally ill, which was already well established quite early on in the film it ends up creating a very incompetent and incapable character. It’s simply too artsy and tries too hard to be a dark, messed up portrayal of this character that it becomes – ironically – more a comic book stereotype than what the filmmakers might have intended.
I’ve also got to mention something else that has nothing to do with the movie itself, but there’s been a lot of negative press about Joker being a rally cry for white incels, an interpretation I disagree with. The idea this film could possibly lionize a murderer or his deeds is simply misplaced, perhaps even misguided.
While there are characters in the film who think him a hero, this movie quite clearly shows his actions are wrong. It also shows, however, the reasons why Arthur Fleck becomes a killer and why he could feel justified with his actions. I think people misinterpret the explanation of why a character is doing terrible things as condoning it. As a film, Joker does not condone it. It may not handle the material as deftly as I’d have liked, but it does allow us to understand from the warped perspective of Arthur Fleck.
What Joker is really about is the need for facilities to help those suffering with mental health issues. It’s about how society values the rich more than the poor and how society contributes to creating its villains through wealth inequality. It’s about the power of the media and how its ability to influence; who is really encouraging Gotham’s citizens to rise up against their oppressors? The glorification of Fleck’s murders and the amplification of Thomas Wayne’s comments only further fan the violence of people already struggling to survive.
Joker ended up being one of the biggest disappointments of 2019 for me. I really wanted to like this film and at the start I really did. But an underwhelming plot and an unimpressive take on the person who will eventually take on Batman never quite worked as it should’ve, and by the end I was dreaming of watching The Dark Knight again. Despite Phoenix’s incredible performance, which is undeniably great, Joker drags on and builds to a big reveal that isn’t worth the journey to get there. It’s too preachy, too artsy, and too long for its own good. I wish this movie had put a smile on my face; sadly, it’s frowns all around.