director: Todd Phillips | runtime: 2hr 1min | drama, thriller, crime
Set in 1981, Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) struggles to readjust into society after being released from a psychiatric hospital. Difficulty with starting a standup career, ineffective medication and a city rampant with crime and poverty leads him down a dark and violent path.
Since it’s release, Joker has been incredibly divisive between those claiming it to be a masterpiece, delving into the mistreatment of the underprivileged, a cynical look at modern society through retro eyes. Others claim it to be toxic, a pretentious and self-involved story justifying abhorrent violence. There are those that do fall somewhere in between, but their opinion is certainly drowned by either extreme praise or criticism.
Opening with an introduction to Arthur’s life, we quickly understand him as a character. Simple minded, he just wants to make people laugh, working for a rent-a-clown company, dancing in front of stores and visiting children’s wards in the hospital. A condition causes him to sporadically break into laughter, often at the most awkward of moments. He spends much of his time looking after his mother, Penny (Frances Conroy), a frail elderly lady splitting her time between sending letters to her former employers, the Wayne family, and watching late night talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro). Arthur dreams of a career as a stand up comic and fantasises about being on Franklin’s show, praise raining over him around his hilarious jokes.
Much of the issues causing friction for Arthur surrounds the brutality of the city around him, early scenes show him beaten up by kids purely out of entertainment for themselves, the influence of 70’s and 80’s Scorsese seeps into every inch of the world, making Gotham feel much like the dirty and depraved New York of Taxi Driver (1976) and Mean Streets (1973), the corrupt millionaires deep into the epicentre of the every controversy, such as the garbage strike, causing a literal build up of trash on the street – though much of Phillips direction is strong, it’s clear subtly isn’t his strongest quality as many times throughout he misses the mark for a layered metaphor, instead hitting us with a surface level analogy. It’s a shame, as much of the narrative throughout treats the audience though they are intelligent, not often handing us each story beat on a silver platter.
In years to come the significant impression people will still have is Joaquin Phoenix talent as one of the best working actors today. Every little detail of Arthur oozes through Phoenix’s performance, not just in a solid portrayal of a sympathetic clown, but the physical element, hunched and crooked it furthers the desperate nature, bringing the inner despondency of a man broken beyond repair, the strength of which breaks into the very physicality of his appearance. Phoenix pairs wonderfully with Phillips direction; the tone, the look, Phillips knows exactly what he wants from every element and guides Phoenix to an Oscar-worthy performance.
Highlights include the sequence when Arthur finally gets on stage in a comedy club and carries out his act – although there’s been hints at his sense of humour being different from others, but it comes to the forefront how – although he loves to laugh, and entertain others – his opinion is far different, and the act on a whole falls flat not least due to his uncontrollable outburst of laughter, many being wrongly convinced he’s laughing at his own material out of pure vanity.
Unfortunately though, Joker isn’t the perfect film. The influence of Scorsese is ever present – those who know his work will likely see much similarity between Phillips’ comic book origin story, and Scorsese’s 1982 The King Of Comedy – the character of Rupert Pupkin dreams of being a standup comic, idolising a late night talk show host, often fantasising of being on the show, and craving the approval of the star. It’s clear throughout that Pupkin has issues, going far beyond fandom and into stalker territory, purely so he can reach the heights of his idol.
Although Joker isn’t a full imitation, it does lean too heavy on its influences to really achieve the heights it thinks it does. Although a commentary on many issues plaguing society, it goes too far in making us sympathise with Arthur, instead of pitying him. It struggles to really make him the villain that he should be – everyone who causes conflict for Arthur isn’t a good person, they’re all corrupt and selfish like the city around him, even going so far as justifying the brutal ending. A expositional dump of a speech at the end is excellently performed by Phoenix but lays out exactly the message of the film, which is actually something most people will agree with – mistreating the unfortunate and mentally ill is bad. These aren’t motivations of a villain, but by the end far more in line with an anti-hero.
The victims of Arthurs rage are essentially assholes, in lesser stories they’d be the antagonists, and to a certain extent are here, but through all of Phillips strong direction the final message feels mixed – that he wants us to route for him, but fully aware that he is now The Joker – a hyper violent maniac. Unfortunately the comparisons between this and The King Of Comedy really show how influence doesn’t always lead to a successful homage, Joker is a grittier and more violent retelling of Rupert Pupkin’s story but without the subtly and true understanding of the character, it mixes the pity we feel for Pupkin and sympathises with Arthur instead.
A completely forgettable romantic subplot that does little but bloat the runtime, fantastic lead performance, a script confused with exactly what it wants to say but strong direction tonally and visually lead to a fascinating watch, with plenty to love but much leaving you yearning – likely to rewatch The King Of Comedy.