Joker is a standalone origin story of Batman’s most infamous villain. It’s about how a guy becomes the Joker. Arthur Fleck is a deeply flawed man suffering from a condition where he can’t control his reactions. He feels too deeply, reacts too strongly, laughs at inappropriate times. Consecutive tragedies befall him and he enters a downward spiral mentally. Some conflicts, escalation, blah blah blah, and BAM! he becomes a supervillain. I think. Maybe?
The film patterns itself clearly after classic Martin Scorsese films, such as Taxi Driver (1976) and The King of Comedy (1982) but never in a million years hits those highs. This is a film that gives as much as you give. Your expectations and desires for the film are going to directly impact your enjoyment of it. The sins of the film might seem unavoidable to some, while the beauty of it may seem all-encompassing to others. The truth, in most dichotomies like this, is somewhere in the middle. If you are open-minded to alternative depictions of famous cartoon characters, if you want superhero movies but want them different and with more artistic flair than a homogeneous Marvel film, or you want to see a fantastic lead performance: watch this film. Even if you don’t love it, it’s worth seeing under those considerations. If you’re not a fan of common dime store cynicism with mediocre dialogue, predictable plot twists, and a large disregard for an iconic character, don’t watch this film. If you are on both sides of what I just said, think about which aspects you value more and that will tell you what you will think about the film.
It would be easy to misread the previews for Joker. The media chose a story based on the tone of marketing that is not necessarily reinforced by the end product. The film actually leans mostly left, but I get the feeling this sort of controversy was intentional. The cynic inside me thinks getting everybody talking about this film in any capacity was better than selling its reality.
The worst part of the film is the script. This might be one of the best I’ve seen with such a bad script. Talent goes a long way, but most lines delivered in this film are clearly half-baked platitudes borrowed from other films or what the writers thought people sounded like. They almost never feel human on the page, and the plot itself never takes profoundly interesting turns. The plot is focused on Arthur’s decay, and everything that surrounds him is done poorly. The love interest feels nonexistent in the worst possible way, while everybody else in this film just feels ugly. This film doesn’t want you to like anybody, everybody’s awful and tries to tell you the world is awful. The redeeming people inside the world don’t see the redemption. Like Arthur, everything breaks apart.
It would help if the film felt compelled to do something with its political edge, but the most meaningful commentary in the film regarding mental health. Otherwise, the class issues and societal problems within are just trite and so out of place (for the most part), even Arthur doesn’t seem particularly involved with the politics at play. He has clear contempt for rich people, but he doesn’t like political statements beyond serving his own ego. This is appropriate for the Joker character, but it doesn’t create a cohesive set of values for the film to preach. So we see people being terrible. Every single person. Some more justifiable, some sympathetic, some clearly worse than Arthur himself, but nobody’s clean. There’s no moral center, and perhaps that’s an inherent problem to basing an entire film on a murderer.
The director Todd Phillips is probably an above-average director and nothing beyond that. He makes every scene visually interesting and competent for the most part, but with the kind of critical goals this film wants to have, he just doesn’t deliver. The camera never does anything inventive or meaningful. Pretty and competent are as good as it gets here. There’s terrible CGI for specific moments that definitely needed practical effects. This is inexcusable.
Yet, I liked the film. It was fun! Structurally, the film actually follows through by the end. The pacing of the first two-thirds is a core issue, but the climax is strong. Pretentious ambiguity aside, the audience is on the edge of their seat by the time things start ramping up and that’s essential to walking away happy.
The costume design for Joker is great. Joker and Arthur are both visually identifiable which is important for the film to have its own identity. If Arthur resembled a previous Joker too much this film would be constantly compared to those versions. This Joker is only slightly reminiscent of Heath Ledger’s portrayal in The Dark Knight (2008), but the makeup and color of his suit are completely unique.
Arthur as a singular character and the film’s approach to reinventing the Joker as a protagonist are commendable. I think this criticism of the film will be most misplaced. This Joker is true to the spirit of the character despite the vast departures. Arthur’s mental illness and traumas feel like the best core for the film and while he may not be pulling out laughing fish any time soon, the writers cared about how to depict him.
They didn’t care as much as Joaquin Phoenix did. Nobody cared as much as him. Joaquin is the best part of the film, without debate. He sells the Joker, he sells Arthur. His unique brand is particularly inspired and every scene he’s in he tries to elevate what’s on the page. He’s worked out his laugh to be the best laugh I’ve ever heard for the Joker; every laugh he performs in this film is different and meant for a different context. I don’t mean to get too analytical just yet, but there’s only one time in the film where Arthur laughs genuinely, and so examining how Joaquin performs each of the countless laughs he goes through is remarkable.
Another easy example of Joaquin’s performance is in his flamboyance. A very easy and predictable arc for him to be sure. Arthur is meek at the start and becomes stronger and more vigorous as the film goes on and he becomes the Joker. The Joker is fearless, and Joaquin chooses to show this form of terrifying psychosis by being more and more evocative and putting more confidence in his effeminate speech patterns. He dances with pure joy when he commits to these depraved acts. If I could personally describe my thoughts on the Joker: he’s an artist trying to be a criminal. This Joker shows that in spades. This sort of performance to me meant Joaquin tried exceptionally hard, especially considering that his lines are never profoundly meaningful and the character never does anything particularly captivating. The most captivated we ever get is when we see Joaquin perform in highly tragic scenes.
The good outweighs the bad. It was viewed in good faith and I received a good return because of that. We cannot dismiss the artistic merits of the film. I like the Joker as a character. I like him murdering rich people, I like him being eternal rivals with Batman, I like him just goofing off and whacking people with a boxing glove. He scratches a different itch than Batman. The dark humor the Joker provides is a chaser to the dark stoicism Batman can’t escape. Joker has that dark humor; it is filled with that darkness.
The film is best seen with a group or in a filled theater. I found audience reactions fascinating to what they thought was funny or sad, or both. I almost felt like Arthur himself, curious and alien among the audience to see what morbid moments they’d laugh at next and what moments of horror actually affected them. Maybe that’s what the media was trying to warn me about.