Kinda like 2019
I don’t know what I was expecting, but I wasn’t expecting that.
Those were my thoughts after seeing Todd Phillips’ much-anticipated take on “Joker.” Generally speaking, I’d sum up my experience as “shook.”
“Joker” is also sure to be one of the most divisive movies of the year. Reactions will range from calling it a classic to calling it trash, and there’s a case to be made for everything in between.
But it’s a movie where, at least to this critic, the ambitions and audacity outweigh the flaws.
We’ll stay clear of spoilers, of course, but let’s start with where your expectations should be. This is not your ordinary comic-book fare. Not by a long shot.
The most obvious touchstones here are“Taxi Driver” and “The King of Comedy.” From pulling in an old-school Warner Bros. logo in the opening title to the casting of Robert De Niro as a late-night talk show host, Phillips is clearly making an homage (and occasional ripoff) of the sort of gritty tales from Martin Scorsese’s prime.
Joaquin Phoenix plays Arthur Fleck. He works as a clown-for-hire, spinning business signs on the streets of a decaying Gotham.
Arthur lives with his elderly mother (Frances Conroy) and aspires to be a comedian. He also grapples with mental illnesses. In an early scene, he meets with a mental health counselor, asking for an increase in his medication. “Arthur,” she notes. “You’re on seven different medications.”
If Heath Ledger’s Joker was full of mischievous misdirection complete with his own conflicting origin stories, Phoenix and Phillips make Arthur a powder keg, the end result of untreated mental illness in an uncaring society in decay.
Which is to say this “Joker” is dark. And I mean DARK. It makes the Christopher Nolan trilogy seem like “Batman & Robin” in comparison.
It’s awash in bleakness and cynicism. It greatly oversimplifies the roots of Joker’s evil as blunt object to comment on the society that creates it.
If a “Joker” from the director of the “Hangover” trilogy (and recent tone-deaf whining about “woke culture” killing comedy) feels like a mismatch, a better touchstone would be one of Phillips’ early films, the GG Allin documentary “Hated.”
Like that movie, “Joker” runs the risk of deifying an anti-hero to the very segment of the disaffected audience that may be drawn to this material. Simply put, I’m sure there will be people who see this movie who should not see this movie.
But the film buff in me, in love with the grimy storytelling of the ’70s, can’t help but be in awe of the audacity and the singular force of Phoenix’s performance.
The danger lies in whether this eventual villain becomes sympathetic. Overall, I say no. Arthur is unnerving, deeply human but hard to connect to. Audiences will likely be very divided on the film, but not on the performance.
“Joker” is a character study laced with societal commentary, more art-house than blockbuster. And in a world of ready-made superhero franchises, it’s so bold, it’s shocking. I’m not sure where I’ll land when that shock wears off, but for today, five stars.