OnScreen Review: "Joker"

  • Ken Jones, Chief Film Critic

After months of controversy and discussion before the film was even released, we finally have Joker in theaters to actually take it on its own merits. Fears were stoked that the grimness and nihilism of the character would potentially spark another theater shooting. Praise was also heaped on actor Joaquin Phoenix as giving an Oscar-worthy performance and some early reviews went so far as to call it the best film of the year. Others questioned whether we even needed an origin story for a character whose background was never central to begin with.

Going in, I kept an open mind. After all, I’m a big fan of Joaquin Phoenix as an actor. I firmly believe that he is one of the best living actors we currently have. I thought it was a curious casting choice because a mainstream, high profile role like this is atypical for him. Of course, he brings the goods. Physically, he’s sporting an emaciated physique similar to what he looked like in The Master (also, what is up with his left shoulder?).

His Joker, whose real name is Arthur Fleck, lives in a run down, cesspool of a Gotham City in the early 1980s that is reminiscent of Scorcese’s New York City in Taxi Driver. He works as a party clown for a business that rents him out for odd jobs like standing on the sidewalk with a business sign or entertaining sick kids at the hospital. After work, he takes a long train ride and a long walk to return to his slum of an apartment, where he lives with his mother, Penny (Frances Conroy). They spend their evenings watching a talk show hosted by Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), a show that Arthur dreams of being on as he is also an aspiring comedian. He also sees a social worker for medication due to being briefly institutionalized previously.

On top of all of all of this, he is beaten up at least twice by a gang of teens in an alley and on the subway by some yuppies who work for Wayne Enterprises. It’s a very grim world and a dead end existence for Arthur, which gets progressively bleaker personally as the film progresses, leading to a breaking point for the character when he is jumped by the yuppies on the subway. It starts Arthur down a dark path that he will not come back from and eventually fully embrace. It’s hard to read the film as anything other than coming from a sympathetic perspective on the character. In a lot of ways, from the performance of Phoenix to the conditions that lead to the downward spiral of the character, the film is an examination of mental illness and how society deals with it; or, rather, doesn’t deal with it. The film litters in more than a few moments of Arthur fantasizing and/or having delusions about his life. It’s

In having a sympathetic view toward Arthur and his conditions, the film takes the bold step of challenging the accepted norms of the Wayne mythos in larger Batman story. Thomas Wayne has always been known as someone who was invested in saving the city and could have been the white knight that the city needed before he and his wife were senselessly gunned down leaving the theater with their young son, Bruce. In Joker, Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) has the public image, but the film asks questions about whether he truly cares about Gotham and the people of Gotham from his walled off ivory castle. It turns out Arthur’s mother used to work for Wayne, and is attempting to send letters to him telling him about the conditions they’re living in. She believes if he just hears about it, he will do something because he has a good heart. Her letters go unanswered. Additionally, when considering a run for mayor, Thomas Wayne makes a public gaffe by calling the poorer, criminal element of the city “clowns,” which implies he is unsympathetic to their plight. The film throws a few red herrings out in regards to the Wayne family, but it definitely throws a bit of wealthy people tarnish on the previously impeccable façade of the Bruce Wayne’s family.

In making an origin story for a comic book villain in 2019 like the Joker, director Todd Phillips is working in a lot of themes that are intended to resonate more in this time period than in the time it is set in. Critiques of the ultra-wealthy and the inaction and indifference of government officials is something that appeals to certain extremes of both ends of the political spectrum today. Blame for the “creation” of the Joker, as it were, is placed as much (or more) at the feet of the wealthy and the government as it is at the feet of Arthur himself. The culmination of the film arrives when Arthur asks someone, “What happens when you cross a mentally ill loner with a society that abandons him, and treats him like trash?” The Joker of Todd Phillips’ film is as much a creature of nurture as he is nature.

So while there are some interesting nuggets that Phillips is exploring with this film, there are just as many elements that are problematic or downright transgressive in nature. Given the comments from Phillips recently about why he decided to leave comedy because of “Woke Culture,” I’m curious as to what prism he intends his film to be seen. To me, it seems like he is working through some stuff and lashing out a bit through this film at perceived critics and the PC police he believes drove him from comedy. The tune of “Rock and Roll Part 2” by convicted pedophile Gary Glitter plays as Joker dances down a public staircase. It’s a song that was hugely popular at sporting events until it was unceremoniously shelved because of Glitter’s sexually criminal behavior, and it’s clearly a deliberate choice by Phillips to put this song in as a provocation as many other elements are.

Directors can challenge viewers and provoke, but it’s important to ask, “To what end?” What are you saying by making a film where the main character is a disaffected white male who wants the world to see him and then does something to finally make the world take notice? Sadly, I don’t think Phillips have much in the way of fully formed ideas or a message with this film that will resonate beyond its theatrical run in the way that Taxi Driver or Fight Club have stood the test of time. Sadly, I think Phillips’ Joker is much closer to Taxi Driver cosplay than being a Taxi Driver for the 21st century.

There’s a definite moment in the film where Arthur embraces his newfound persona and everything in the film locks into place for about the last half hour. There’s a noticeable change in the way Phoenix portrays the character and as fascinating and unique a performance it is up to that point from him, he assumes full control of the screen from that moment on and is completely mesmerizing up until the climax of the film, where Arthur finally realizes his dream of being on the Murray Franklin show. The denouement is a bit too celebratory and high on its own supply to really work for me; how celebrated Joker becomes as a figure to the “clowns” strains credulity for me. It’s almost like Tyler Durden created Project Mayhem by accident and is swept up into its warm embrace by an army of space monkeys he didn’t know he had recruited.

Joker is a film that wants to challenge audiences, wants to provoke, and wants to be great. Joaquin Phoenix has moments where he is mesmerizing but as compelling as he is there are just as many elements of this film that are problematic or provocative just for the sake of being provocative. The nihilism of the character that was on full display In Heath Ledger’s performance in The Dark Knight that worked so well in small doses proves to be a bit too much as the main course. I rarely say this, but the world of Joker is not one I’m sure I’m ever interested in revisiting.

  • Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars