Movie Review: This ‘Joker’ ain’t clowning around
The comic book movie has gone full Scorsese in Todd Phillips’ Joker, an anguished, wrenching film that explicitly recalls Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, along with along classic meditations on alienation. This one goes so far down in its own distinctive direction that brief references to the Batman comic - which even include a young Bruce Wayne - feel entirely out of place in this real-feeling drama.
In an instantly-iconic performance that defines the film - and redefines the character - Joaquin Phoenix stars as Joker, here presented not as Jack Nicholson’s demented gangster or Heath Ledger’s evil incarnate, but as Arthur Fleck: a well-meaning but deeply disturbed man who constantly finds himself on the receiving end of society’s ills.
Fleck is not necessarily a Travis Bickle-like sociopath - a comparison that the movie frequently invites (there’s even a drolly amusing “you looking at me?” sequence capped by a punchline) - but a sympathetic figure not only suffering from genuine mental illness but also cruelty at the hands of almost everyone that surrounds him.
“Please excuse the laughing,” reads a card Arthur hands a woman after being admonished for interacting with her son. “I have a disorder [more info on back].”
Arthur has a real-life condition that results in uncontrollable fits of laughter at inappropriate moments, something that adds a unique spin to the usual Joker presentation as a hysterical lunatic. But because he’s not always able to explain his disorder to the strangers that surround him, the fits of laughter frequently result in unintended consequences.
Like Bickle, or perhaps more appropriately, the Charles Bronson character in Death Wish, Arthur can only take so much before he fights back. A trio of Wall Street goons harassing a woman on a subway carriage become his first, and for much of the film only, victims. Arthur’s clown-masked fugitive is hailed as a hero by some, but more important to the movie is how the violence affects the main character, and how it pulls him further and further from reality.
There’s an attempt here not only to humanize the Joker character, but to really explore the circumstances under which a mentally ill individual can turn into a psychopathic killer. A comic book movie may not be the best arena for this kind of psychoanalysis, but Joker, at least, is delivering this kind of material into a vehicle that will be seen and discussed by millions.
Phoenix, who will very likely become the second actor to win an Oscar for portraying The Joker in the past decade-plus, is brilliant in the central role, not only subtly conveying a deep range of emotion in nearly every scene but eliciting the same from the audience in response. In a career filled with memorable performances, his Joker might become the role that defines him - - but Phoenix transcends the comic book character and gives us a wholly original take.
He owns the film throughout almost every scene, but there’s some standout work in support as well. Robert De Niro portrays late night TV personality Murray Franklin, who goes toe-to-toe with Joker in what might be the film’s standout scene (stand-up comic and podcast legend Marc Maron cameos as Franklin’s stage manager), while Frances Conroy is Arthur’s mother. Zazie Beetz (Deadpool 2) plays a neighbor Arthur develops a relationship with, while Shea Wigham and Bill Camp show up in thankless roles as a pair of cops on Joker’s trail.
Cinematographer Lawrence Sher gorgeously recreates the feel of early 1980s New York City in Joker’s re-imagined Gotham, while Icelandic composer Hildur Guðnadóttir (Chernobyl) provides a low-key atmospheric score bolstered by some period-era hits.
Director Todd Phillips was previously best known for his comedies that included films like Road Trip and The Hangover series, but successfully transitioned into drama with 2016’s War Dogs, a Wolf of Wall Street-like true story that came across as minor-league level Scorsese.
Joker, meanwhile, represents Phillips’ elevation to the big leagues. There are issues with the storytelling here: Joker often feels more like a series of vignettes than a fully-compelling narrative, and it’s not as accomplished as Taxi Driver or The King of Comedy, Scorsese movies this film frequently apes, or The Dark Knight, the previous Joker flick. But there’s no denying the filmmaking chops of those behind the camera.
Joker is also not a better film than The Painted Bird, which it beat out for the top prize at this year’s Venice Film Festival, but it’s hard to imagine a more discussed, and worthy-to-be-discussed movie in 2019. This movie does something wholly new within the comic book genre, and something that ought to be lauded, rather than condemned, from mainstream filmmaking.