Movie Review: "Joker" (2019)
There’s been a mystery permeating pop culture for well over a decade now, as comic book movies have become juggernauts just like the heroes and villains they embody, obliterating everything else at the box office. The mystery is simply this: what has the DC Universe been missing? All that dark subject matter (so unlike much of Marvel’s bright and heroic fare) should make for something boldly different and engaging.
When, we asked ourselves…when would the DC Universe land a really devastating and physical blow on the powers that be over at Marvel? I’m here to tell you the answer: now.
Marvel just got kicked in the teeth really fucking hard.
I grew up a DC kid (as I talked about at length here), but I’m trying very hard to be a critic not a fanboy. I’ve grown to love the MCU as well, and Marvel sits on top for a reason. But I will say that Todd Phillip’s (The Hangover series) nastily relevant and highly subjective character study/origin story, Joker, goes a long way towards closing the gap on the late Stan Lee’s cinematic empire. It also gives us a Joker who will return in another film with the same actor, which is a serious achievement in and of itself. The final 5 minutes are the first time a DC film made me grin from ear-to-ear and exclaim “I can’t fucking wait for the next one!”
Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix; Walk the Line) is a sad and lonely man who exists on the edge of society in Gotham City. He’s a literal clown for hire. Even amongst his fellow clowns, he stands out as especially pathetic and unhinged. He lives in a dingy apartment with his loony, elderly mother (Frances Conroy; American Horror Story). He has a “condition” that causes him to laugh uncontrollably at times of heightened emotion (and a card to show you for explanation so you feel like a piece of shit for messing with him). He fancies himself a stand-up comedian, though he isn’t funny and doesn’t understand what other people find funny or even why they laugh at it. He’s the walking definition of disconnected and dangerous. A series of unfortunate and ugly events leads to his snap, and he murders a trio of terrible young men in a subway train. Gotham City, already on edge from a long-running garbage strike and political strife (including the impending mayoral run of billionaire Thomas Wayne), is boiling over into chaos and the soon-to-be Joker becomes an anti-hero. Unexpected notoriety follows in various forms, and before you can say “why so serious?” there’s a punchline of hideously violent proportions. Once Joker is booked for an appearance on the Late Night with Murray Franklin Show (Robert DeNiro in a killer hybrid Carson/Leno impersonation), there will be a reckoning that will change the face of Gotham City forever.
There’s an old expression (quoted in the film as well) that comedy is subjective. That couldn’t be more true and is maybe the best one-sentence review of Joker you could come up with. Critics and moviegoers alike are already labeling it as dangerous and irresponsible; I call it important and hideously accurate. This is a movie about deep mental illness, childhood trauma, and life as a discarded incel. It’s also a film about the massive divide in this country between the haves and the have-nots. It’s a cautionary tale about treating people the way you’d want to be treated…because you don’t know when they’re going to show up with a gun. It’s been said that art (in general) and film (in particular) is a product of the times in which they’re created, and Joker is the textbook example of that.
Is it derivative of Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy to the point of needing to put Scorsese’s name in the credits? Sure it is. There’s nothing wrong with that; every filmmaker has influences and the impression of that particular master is all over Joker. It totally works given the subject matter and how relevant it is in our current sociopolitical cycle. Hell, the character of Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen; The Dark Knight Rises) pretty much is Donald Trump in the way that we all know Gotham City is simply New York City. To that point, that NYC flavor is all over the style of Joker and enhances the Taxi Driver comparisons.
Cinematically, it’s a thing of beauty. Every shot involving the towering staircase that Arthur travels on the daily holds you in thrall, especially as you realize how he starts off tiny in comparison to it before eventually becoming the dominant object in frame. The sleaze and stink of the city bleeds through the screen in classic Gotham fashion. The movie stinks in the best way possible; it’s the smell of slow madness. The tension builds in a clinically slow-paced first and second act before going full Joker in the final frame. The violence is necessary and unapologetic. There’s a reveal as the speed picks up that isn’t a shocker, per se, but sends a chill up your spine as you fully realize that Arthur Fleck is NOT the man to pull for here.
That doesn’t mean you won’t pull for him.
Joaquin Phoenix absolutely will win awards for this performance. There are so many moments of genuine discomfort and cringe that you almost feel as if you’ve wandered into a middle school play. He gives new definition to awkward and painful character growth. He’s also sickeningly skinny and physical, a raw and repulsive presence. If Heath Ledger was the ultimate portrayal of a purely psychotic Joker made invincible by sheer insanity, then Joaquin Phoenix is the ultimate portrayal of a human being damaged beyond repair who feels that he deserves to belong at all costs.
Arthur Fleck keeps a notebook full of jokes that began life as a journal that his social worker asked him to keep. In it, there are all sorts of “crazy” things written down. The two that stood out the most (in the film and in the heart) are the phrases “I hope my death makes more sense than my life!” and “The worst part of having a mental illness is people expect you to behave as if you don't.” If that doesn’t hit home, then I’d say you’ve lived a pretty outstanding life.
Joker deeply moved me in a way that’s hard to describe, hence the use of the word subjective earlier. I come from the fringes myself to some degree, and I know a thing or two about mental illness. The folks who call it irresponsible aren’t wrong in the sense that it’s a powerful film that speaks to that damage. There’s a scene near the end where Joker is laughing, and he is asked “what’s so funny?” He replies, “You wouldn’t get it” He’s right, too- if you haven’t been there you won’t get it.
A lot of people are going to get Joker. We’re all a little damaged, after all.