Joker Film Review
Todd Phillips‘s “Joker” was released to much hype on August 31 2019 winning the most prestigious award the Golden Lion at the 76th Venice International Film Festival. The film proceeded to set a box office record for October grossing over $272 million on a somewhat modest budget estimated around $70 million (modest as compared to the last two movies based on DC characters). Widespread demand at the box office is one of few bright points in this review which is more a testament to marketing budgets and tactics than of a films artistic merits. “Joker” feels as if both writers Phillips and Scott Silver set out to humanize the iconic “Joker” character but fail as we never see him go beyond a one dimensional mentally ill victim who the world keeps relentlessly beating on, but instead acquire more of an understanding of what seems to us a logically consequential downfall of a person with grossly low self-esteem.
The feature is infused like countless pieces of entertainment today, especially comic book movies, with darkness for no apparent purpose than for appealing to a target market. I find the movie lacks the depth it seemingly craves evidenced by its attempts at fabricating self importance. Trying to tie in what feels like everything from gun control to racism to prevailing mental illness one can’t help feel that the makers of “Joker” wanted to cash in on the current social climate but it all feels slapdash at best in its execution.
– Brief Summary, skip if you suffer from spoiler-phobia –
“Joker” starts off in the early 1980s in Gotham City which is suffering a garbage collector strike where we meet mentally ill Arthur Fleck portrayed by masterful Joaquin Phoenix. Arthur in his 30s is a party clown with stand-up comedy aspirations living in dire straits with Penny his disabled mother, played by Frances Conroy.
The action commences when Arthur is robbed on the job by teenage delinquents in front of an electronics shop of a sign he is twirling . Arthur proceeds to chase the boys down to a backstreet only to have this backfire in a violent fashion.
After Arthur is on a public bus where he finds a child turned backwards curiously staring at him. In response he goes into his clown routine making funny faces and grimaces which amuses the boy to laughter unfortunately earning Arthur a callous remark from the child’s mother demanding him to leave her child alone.
Upon returning home he shares the elevator with two of his neighbours a mother called Sophie, played by Zazie Beets, and her child where they exchange a somewhat awkward comedic interaction before he invites her to come see his stand-up comedy.
Glenn Fleshler, in the role of one of Arthur’s colleague Randall, the next day hearing about the attack acts concerned and lends him his revolver. Arthur after botching a gig at a children’s hospital puts the weapon to use when three well-to-do men attempt to attack him on the subway train and he responds in brutal fashion even stalking and executing the sole escapee of the three who managed to reach the stairs exiting the terminal.
Attempting to be as spoiler free as possible I shall only mention two more scenes in this summary. Arthur is watching a black and white film in the apartment called “Shall we Dance” featuring legends Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. It starts with a scene on a ship where the engine room staff are crooning a tune lead by actor Dudley Dickerson and accompanied by a jazz band who are soon joined by Fred before going into a dance number. When the actors break into dance Arthur follows suit spinning around the living room accidentally pulling the trigger of his revolver making a hole in the living room wall.
Despite having several opportune moments to do so the movie seldom elicited any emotion barring the discomfort of violence. When Josh Pais, as Holt the clown agency boss, is giving Arthur an ear beating for something we know he didn’t do, Arthur sits and takes it providing little in way of resistance to the bullying he is suffering, as opposed to sympathy I felt myself and other cinema goers just felt frustrated. This is in no small part due to the caricature of Arthur Fleck, his simplicity as a mentally ill man is poorly conceived as all we see the whole movie is his odd laughing and some excerpts from his tattered diary.
Another similar instant is when he is callously treated by a mother on the bus for no reason apart from making her son laugh, but here too he seems to just take it with the difference being he provides a card explaining his condition (Pseudobulbar affect (PBA) or emotional incontinence for those curious) and continues to endure the effects of the disorder beginning to laugh repeatedly. I hold this condition in itself as a plot device was poorly thought through, utilized and does little but delay the films pacing and irritate viewers. You get the sense as if when all else fails cue Phoenixes odd laughter.
Due to our intent to not reveal spoilers there are two scenes which I cannot disclose, where one doesn’t only feel disturbed by brutal violence but the scene actually evokes feelings of deep sadness and realization. Foreshadowing was used cleverly to bring a modicum of comprehension and most to an idea of what is likely to happen next. This was the only true directorial highlight I can recollect of the movie.
Phillips I feel was trying to make a movie of substance by combining three different and distinct source materials which served as inspiration. It seems that the team is going for a social commentary and deeper angle as opposed to pure entertainment and I feel they fumble it like the Giants in ’78.
To most film buffs it is obvious that Phillips was inspired a great deal by “Taxi Driver” and “The King of Comedy”, both Martin Scorsese films and both starring another legend Robert De Niro, which study rich well developed characters. But beyond inspiration it feels as if Phillips and company attempted a mash up of the two films, which could be a reason Scorsese decided to step away from production. Another source of inspiration especially for the premise appears to be Alan Moore‘s classic One Shot graphic novel from 1988 “The Killing Joke”.
To compare the first two sources, both are made dark but for different and fairly sound reasons. Where “Taxi Driver” explores results of alienation on the psyche and perspective of De Niro’s Travis Bickle, “The King of Comedy” studies awkward ideas as it cuts to bone of De Niro’s Rupert Pupkin’s denial of his repeated rejections. Whilst trying to bring the two very different concepts into one film plausibility of behaviour and execution of the idea itself seem to be the challenge. Where Travis repeatedly attempts to make connections in his film we get the feeling Arthur doesn’t try which can demonstrate Arthur possessing severely low self-esteem which can be seen as further stimulated by his mother who even asks him that for one to be a stand up comedian shouldn’t they be funny.
With “The King of Comedy” it is visible that a lot has been taken from the plot but there is one crucial difference, Rupert makes his success as a stand up comedian his sole focus and relentlessly attempts to gain recognition and veneration for his skills but as we watch Joker we don’t get that feeling of effort truly invested from Arthur’s side as is the case with Rupert.
Finally to discuss the alleged inspiration coming from “The Killing Joke”, I am lost for connecting points as they are few an far between. If you mention you were inspired by “The Killing Joke” one finds it hard to find what inspired Phillips. In the novel Moore and Brian Bolland, the artist, attempt to illustrate the notion that Joker is a mirror reflection of Batman, that one bad day can separate us all from insanity and depravity. One tragedy creates both iconic characters on opposite ends of the spectrum, Bruce Wayne spends his life trying to find meaning from it whilst Jack Napier (Joker) reflects the absurdity and injustice which can befall us.
In “Joker” Batman is absent and Arthur is pushed to the edge due to seemingly a build up of lifelong torment. Beyond the obvious I enjoy Moore’s take on the project that he feels when they crafted “The Killing Joke” it was to do something original, to stimulate the industry to try new ideas and be creative and he like most reviewers I feel has become sick of the trend he birthed with his stories especially “The Watchmen” and “The Killing Joke”. We we can derive purpose from the source material but finding a purpose for making “Joker” aside from financial gain is difficult.
The movie seemingly attempts to be a social commentary and falls flat, surely pulling inspiration from various crimes and tragedies which occurred in New York during the 1970-1980s such as The Central Park 5 or the Bernhard Goetz attack but switching things up enough to not make connections clear. Some reviewers claim this is a movie about racism and white supremacy, about mental illness or even about class systems but I feel none of these themes were well enough developed and simply don’t meet the mark.
There is one scene which I feel would have made for a perfect point in the movie to endear Arthur Fleck to the audience as Peter Finch‘s Howard Beale did in “Network” when he went on his tirade denouncing how bad things have become, instead we receive a inefficient attempt at such with unsophisticated sentiment like “Everybody just screams at each other. Nobody’s civil any more” which obviously fails in what it endeavours to do through its simplicity and lack of substance.
All being said it feels this movie was created to launch a new movie series and build unwarranted hype. If one wanted to create something new and divergent, why not simply create a new character as opposed to using someone who has their own canon and following. Then again both Marvel and DC comics have altered their characters so much to make each character appealing to everyone possible, I feel alienating the fans whose dollars these giants built there empires on in the process.
We shall briefly touch on the film-making itself, as there are few gripes here and as there is praise to be dished out likely ensuing from the exchange of a forceful plot for continual discomfort.
Lawrence Sher‘s cinematography was solid, the camera movement is smooth, the camera angles safe as are the camera distances. Feeling it would have done better with a stronger score but the sound was decent, no complaints come to mind. The editing was handled by Jeff Groth and things seemed to flow easily, feel like the other aspects we have discussed not much to really write home about.
Globally though I perceive the “Joker” came off looking catchpenny or rushed, the scenes appeared smaller than could have been and angles could have been more varied. Some rally scenes seemed nearly as slapdash as the plot, with one protestor literally holding a garden chair over his head.
If any deeper meaning can be derived I am troubled finding it, the closest thing I can find is the alluded to mash up of three iconic pieces of art in an attempt to create a hybrid of substance. Apart from that Phillips could be attempting to paint an image of a disabled downtrodden man who has been neglected and left out to dry by family, society and the government whilst pointing a finger of blame at the wealthy. If this is the case I feel he has missed the mark.
(Possible Spoiler) You don’t really get upset when you feel the director wants to you to be mad at the Wayne family. How is it an employers responsibility to take care of a former employee or her child? It is Penny’s responsibility to take care of Arthur, and here is where one might be able to blame government for even allowing an unstable woman such as her to raise a child let alone return him to her after what he endured in her care but that again rests on a society to demand such things. On the other hand when Arthur decides to take revenge it feels wrong as he is becoming exactly what he encounters regularly, a bully. Now I am feeling if I provide any more examples the movie will be spoiled for all who wish to see it.
The only thing certainly which can impress is Joaquin Phoenixes acting, he is a great actor and this role I feel forced him to resort to his bag of actors tricks constantly as there was little substance to be work with. This movie will likely be most appealing and interesting to youthful faux-nerds and less demanding quasi-fans of darker film and fiction. It has the hype to sell it, a great actor and an iconic character which they’d probably know little about previous to Heath Ledger’s Joker in the Dark Knight series (which he was amazing in) so this will probably work with a crowd in their early twenties to mind 30s with little love of comics from the era of Crisis on Infinite Earths and prior. For movie buffs I can say this movie is skippable in my humble opinion.
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