Joker - 2019
Director(s): Todd Phillips
Writer(s): Todd Phillips
Cinematography by: Lawrence Sher
Editor(s): Jeff Groth
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy, and Brett Cullen
Consider this a soft-re-opening to my website; I'll be back November 1st with more reviews and fun things. But for now, how about we tackle this "dangerous" and "toxic" real film under the guise of a comic-book movie (director's words not mine).
Joker is the story of a mentally-ill, lonely clown named Arthur Fleck (Phoenix), living in Gotham City. Arthur suffers from many illnesses, including uncontrollable laughter. It comes and goes during inopportune times. He aspires to become a stand-up comedian, even though he is the only one laughing in the room. Arthur's life starts to unravel and begins an emotional downward-turn that will embark him down a path of no return - and a lot of "dancing."
Before I get to the review, let's address the toxic flag being waved in front of this movie. Yes, one can say that this type of film could be misrepresented or misunderstood by some in our society. One can say the same thing about literally every single piece of cinema, including the ones trotted out to be the best of all-time. Godfather, Taxi Driver, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, to name a few. The reason or part of the reason, this film has become a lightning rod of "controversy" is the box-office juggernaut that comic-book movies currently are. Joker opened to box-office breaking numbers. So, it is a mainstream issue. Countless movies have come out in recent years with the same, or close to, archetype as the lead. Many have been praised and nominated for awards. So, this clutching of pearls (Martha Wayne excluded) is unnecessary, and it will be forgotten for the next mainstream issue. No film deserves this much attention, and virtue signaling - especially this boring, shallow, and uninteresting movie. Let's get into it.
Sorry, how about we start with the positive, Joaquin Phoenix. It is fitting that Phillips often focused on his bent and distorted back, as Phoenix does his best to carry this film with another fantastic and characteristic performance. Arthur Fleck feels human, never veering closely to its cartoonish roots. He is broken, tired, and hurt – yet you can always see a faint glimmer of hope behind his eyes. Once his character embraces his illness, Phoenix shines. There are a few visually compelling moments, even though they are far and few between. I liked the use of the stairs as it bookmarks Fleck's state of mind. In the beginning, we see him ascends into Gotham towards his mother and their daily routine. Once he embraces who he is (or who he will be), we see him dancing down the stairs. Visually representing his downward turn and his joy towards it.
Quick note: I love the tiny details Phoenix brought to the role, such as always running as if he had clown shoes weighing his feet down.
For everyone drawing a comparison to Taxi Driver or King of Comedy, the one thing this script, and Phillips forgot to do was make New York (Gotham) a character of the story. Outside of a few scenes, the city, the environment that "made" Arthur, is an afterthought. We mainly get a sense of the town through newspapers and clips of the news. We don't fully see why there is a societal turmoil; we don't explore the effects of the classes outside of the "riots" in the end. As for Joker's influence on the city, it is inconsequential; he has nothing to do with why there is chaos. The agent of chaos is a blip on the map. It just so happens that three rich guys attacked him when he had the means to defend himself - what would have happened if he guns down someone of the lower class? Like the kids that ambushed him in the opening sequence. The script attempted to dig in a bit deeper, only to chicken out because the water was too cold. It never goes further than saying “poor bad”, “mental illness being ignored bad”, and proceeds to pack itself in the back.
Quick note: Fleck's Joker has nothing to do with this clown movement- yet the masks that everyone wears are identical to his make-up. Even though there were no witnesses of the killer clown in the subway. The only thing he controls are the few killings he commits, the rest he is just a bystander in his own movie.
Phillips desperately wanted to make a real film but fell short of recreating motifs and visual callbacks to far greater films. If you think I am a bit harsh with that statement, know this; this film is being shown on 35mm and 70mm – you know, like the “prestigious” filmmakers of our times do (Nolan and Tarantino). Yet, Phillips shot this movie digitally, not on film. He really wants to sneak in a real film, even by himself.
Quick note: the score by Hildur Guðnadóttir is very well done, but it is used in a disruptive and intrusive way. It really wants you to FEEL something even if he is just walking down the corridor on his way to his apartment.
Look the Joker when stripped of all the noise surrounding it is just an okay film, I guess. The lead up to the turn is boring and drawn out. The King of Comedy "homage" sequences were the most compelling, but it took too long to get there. The relationship with his mother could've been handled better, giving the reveal more weight and pathos in the end. With the Joker being your main character, one would think the film would have been deeply rooted in a dark sense of humor. But there are barely any comedic beats, with the biggest laugh (from me) coming when the pearls hit the floor. If you liked this film, okay, if you didn't, okay. But let's stop making this film something that it is not – it is just a film.
Joker is a Streamer.
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