Why so serious?
IMDB Synopsis: A gritty character study of Arthur Fleck, a man disregarded by society.
Let’s cut to the chase here. Joker is a lot. It’s three-parts a story about a mentally ill man’s descent into psychotic madness. It’s one part economic parable (eat the rich!). It’s one part pastiche of Scorcese. Add in a slight dash of its comic book roots, and you have the mess that is Joker. That’s not to say that it’s bad. But it’s also an indictment that it doesn’t reach greatness. It’s a beautifully looking movie, there are a couple interesting ideas in the film—a couple disgusting ones—and one helluva performance. Ultimately, the self-seriousness of the thinly sketched main character is too monotonous and overall, a bummer.
Joker follows Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) as a mentally ill, broken, hopeless man. He suffers from a nebulous neurological disorder that causes his body to wrack with hysterical laughter at inopportune times. It’s quickly clear that Arthur is a deeply troubled, beta-male that endures one indignity after another, while simultaneously suffering from delusions of grandeur. Through the prism of Arthur’s life, the audience is shown a society that diminishes and belittles the mentally ill. And this is where the film succeeds, in making the audience feel sympathy for Arthur: For his station in life, for his suffocating mother (Frances Conroy), for the cruelness of Gotham. The first half of the film doesn’t seem like a DC property, but feels like a modern retelling of Taxi Driver; a portrait of a man slowly descending into madness. And a nice homage to that film by casting Robert De Niro as late night host Murray Franklin.
But that’s where the admiration and the nuanced three dimensional shape of this character ends. The film doesn’t define his mental disorder beyond the cackling. Rather, it’s a plot device to get Arthur to psychotically break, and thus start his descent into becoming an unfeeling, murderous monster. Don’t address the issue, but twist it to your narrative ends. It’s clear that director Todd Phillips wanted to make a self-serious movie, and he’s using the Joker character as his blank check to do so.
Arthur becomes a loose sketch, at best, of a man descending into madness. Essentially, he snaps, and becomes a fully-formed, sociopath. The film gives credence to the notion that it’s ok to give in to your baser instincts, no matter how deranged. And in the final scenes, the film celebrates this. Arthur truly finds himself and his delusions of grandeur are realized as he transforms in the Joker. And while the notion that this film—or any piece of media—could incite real world violence is unfair and wrong, it certainly doesn’t exonerate this film of being a poor navigation through mental illness and repressed male anger.
The highlight of the film is undoubtedly Joaquin Phoenix’s performance as Arthur. The bar was certainly set by the 2008 Heath Ledger version of the character, and while Phoenix borrows, he makes the Joker his own. Physically transformed into an emaciated, broken man, Phoenix breathes life into Arthur Fleck. A lesser actor would have painted with too broad of a brush, but Joaquin artfully takes the audience on the journey from downtrodden beta to nihilistic sociopath. The movie most certainly will not stand the test of time, but Phoenix’s performance just might.
Highlights: The confrontation between Arthur Fleck and Murray Franklin is fraught and the best scene in the film. And yet another retelling of Bruce Wayne’s parents murder in Crime Alley!
MVP: Joaquin Phoenix.
Should you see it: If you’re a Batman/Superhero fan, yes. If you’re a normal moviegoer, probably wait for an airplane. 5.5/10.
Studio: Warner Bros. // Original release date: October 3, 2019