I promise that for the sake of this review that “We live in a society” memes when be kept to the bare minimum. That doesn’t mean the temptation doesn’t exist, however. In fact, it is quite the opposite. Admittedly while Todd Phillips’s smash hit could be thematically reduced to that one phrase, I’ve found it much more interesting to discuss how Joker explores that message and thus the film’s title character.
Starring Joaquin Phoenix as the clown prince of crime, this psychological thriller follows the downward spiral of a failed stand-up comedian Arthur Fleck, whose trying to find something akin to happiness in the seemingly broken Gotham City. He makes a critical decision that may end up dragging the city into a descent of madness along with him. For intents and purposes, this film serves to provide a possible explanation for how a man like Joker could exist.
Anything that centers on this character is always going to get my attention. Throughout the comics, TV shows, and even in video games, the Joker brings the perfect amount of dark comedy, menace, and sheer lunacy to whatever tricks he has up his sleeve. He’s a delightfully entertaining villain who serves as the perfect foil for his arch-nemesis Batman. And they have been quite a few interpretations of this character put to film. Some ranging from the ionic Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight to the much more questionable Suicide Squad’s Jared Leto. With so much buzz with his recent Oscar nomination for best actor, does Joaquin Phoenix truly shine as this beloved madman?
Well, with an actor of Phoenix’s caliber, the answer is, without a doubt, yes. Throughout his many, many performances, I’ve always viewed Phoenix as those actors who can play just about anything. With such a versatile range, it’s no shock that he finds new ways to inject his own traits and mannerisms to make this character so larger than life, yet so tragically human all the same. With a story like this, the film needs to balance the fine line of having the audience feel sympathetic for him and terrified. And Phoenix trends that line perfectly.
Part of what makes his work so remarkable is how he gets so physical with the role. Not just solely because Phoenix lost so much weight for this performance. I mean with how he carries himself through body movement and expression. His various dance routines seem to be one of the few times where Fleck feels like he has any sense of understanding and control over the world around him. His new take on the famous Joker laugh brings him far more pain than any real joy. And these little details shine through the character writing also. His little notes in his journal. How he laughs out of sync with everyone when he’s at a comedy club. Or how he runs like a clown even we he doesn’t have his uniform on. Little traits build up to create a fully nuanced character.
Having seen the film twice now, I’m still very much impressed with how the film handles this character trip into lunacy. Arthur is very much a man trying to walk through as he sees it, a dark, cold world with a happy face in the hope that he can bring joy to all. Of course, it seems that the same world is more content with spitting him out of it more than anything. Or, at best, pretend that he simply doesn’t exist. That not to say the world is entirely composed of awful people doing awful things. But sometimes anybody can make a choice in how they choose to see the other guy. And it’s not always the best one either.
That being said, since this is a film about the Joker, it doesn’t pretend that Arthur isn’t without fault. His inability to socialize properly is understandable, but he’s not incapable of making his own decisions too. And they do come with dire consequences. But as he sees it, if everything will keep coming to take a bite out of him, why not do one in return? If society acts indifferent towards its ticking time bombs, what else could have been expected when it finally comes.
For anyone with a decent knowledge of American cinema, this plot might seem familiar, and you would be right to assume so. Todd Phillips himself stated that he took inspiration from Martin Scorsese’s works, such as Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy (Which I reviewed in anticipation of Joker if you want to see it yourself), along with 1970s character studies. I should make it clear that there is nothing wrong with taking inspiration for your own projects. Any artist has them. But some might find its inspirations to be too obvious for their liking and might even see this film as an inferior version. While I don’t believe that Joker rises to the same level as its inspirations, it still very much well-executed.
Even if he previously been more famous for his Hangover series, Todd Phillips shows he has a keen eye for dramatic storytelling. He’s very much insistent on letting the visuals tell the story by letting us see how Arthur slowly changes because of both external and internal factors. Those dance routines I aforementioned tell more of a story than I think the dialogue could have ever done. And speaking of visuals? This film is stunning. Lawrence Sher’s compositions and use of lighting work wonder into bringing us into the grimly, borderline dystopian world of Gotham and its citizens. The soundtrack by Hildur Guðnadóttir works not as grand, bombastic music to make something seem important but by subtly acting as a background player. Its minimalist approach underscores the brewing rage aching for release within Arthur.
This leads to what really is my only major issue with Joker. Almost everything focusing on how a downtrodden man finds his own meaning in a world that has none available for him is compelling from start to finish. There might be a few narrative beats that can seem really obvious, but they don’t drag too long, and Phoenix’s spectacular work never ceases to have my attention. I can’t entirely say when the film decides to shift its attention to the class struggles of Gotham’s residents. Compared to what the film has to say with its character study, those portions of the film come off as too simple for my taste. I see the intent in how it’s trying to say how the system is responsible for everyone’s predicament, which is fine and dandy. But it does also fall into the territory of “Poor people good, Rich People bad.” in its execution, for it to have a greater degree of impact within the film, there should have been more nuggets of nuance to make that plotline feel more fleshed out.
That being said, they’re pretty brief and don’t take the film away too much from its main centerpiece. For taking comic book movies into a new direction, Joker provides a beautifully filmed examination of one man’s bad days that is capped off by a pitch-perfect performance by Joaquin Phoenix. All while serving a genuinely plausible origin story for its clown-obsessed madman.
Not bad for a film about how we live in a society.