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Josh Reviews Joker

October 23rd, 2019
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Joker, directed by Todd Phillips and written by Mr. Phillips and Scott Silver, tells the origin of the famous Batman villain, the Joker.  However, this take on the Joker is almost entirely divorced from the Batman comic mythos, and it is also completely separate from all of the recent DC Universe films from Warner Brothers.  This stand-alone tale tells the story of a loner named Arthur Fleck, played by Joaquin Phoenix, who longs to be a star on the late-night television show of Murray Franklin, played by Robert De Niro.  Arthur lives with his ailing mother and struggles to get work as a performing clown.  The film charts his descent into madness and violence, and the chaos stirred up in his wake.

Joker represents an interesting and somewhat unusual approach to take, and frankly I am of two minds about it.  I am all-in on a serious, adult take on superheroes.  I loved Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, which were dead-serious in their approach to Batman and his world.  Joker is an even deeper dive into the psychological underpinnings of a Batman character, the titular Joker.  I love that about the film, and I think it succeeds in presenting a very disturbing look at this character and how he might have emerged in a world that feels very much like our own.  On the other hand, just as I wasn’t interested in a movie about Spider-Man villain Venom in which Spider-Man didn’t appear (I skipped 2019’s Venom), while watching Joker I found myself often thinking that this felt like only half a film.  As much as I was enjoying the journey towards the creation of the Joker, I often felt like I was missing the Batman side of the story.

The strongest aspect of the film is Joaquin Phoenix’s tremendously compelling work as Arthur Fleck.  Mr. Phoenix paints a viscerally gripping picture of a slowly disintegrating man.  There is not a whiff of cartoonishness or over-the-top stylization in this performance.  Mr. Phoenix plays things totally, hauntingly real.  Even in an otherwise grounded superhero film, there’s usually the point in which the hero or villain makes the choice to put on a costume, and we’re in the land of fantasy.  But Joker never goes there.  Arthur Fleck never transforms into what you’d expect a super-villain to look like.  This is the film’s power.  As we see this man break, and slip into delusion and violence, it’s all the more painful because it all feels real.  Mr Phoenix’s performance is terrifying and unhinged.  I have often complimented Mr. Phoenix for the way he adjusts his physicality for his different roles; that skill is on impressive display here, as he has somehow contorted his body into Arthur’s lanky, scarily-skinny frame.  (Were any of these shots enhanced by CG?  If not, I am impressed and a little concerned.)

The film’s production design leans into the reality that Mr. Phoenix brings to his performance.  This is not the stylized Gotham City seen in Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman, or the 2017 Justice League film.  The Gotham City seen in Joker feels like a very real American city, albeit one that has just tipped over the edge into an urban hellscape.  The Gotham City of Joker reminds me very much of the New York City seen in The Deuce, or in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver.

The film contains many distinct homages to the films of Mr. Scorsese.  The scene in which Arthur sits in his apartment and pretends to aim and fire the handgun he’s just acquired is distinctly reminiscent of the famous “You talking’ to me?” scene from Taxi Driver.  And much of the film’s structure feels modeled after Mr. Scorsese’s 1983 film The King of Comedy.  Just like Rupert Pupkin did in that film, Arthur Fleck idolizes a late-night talk show host and longs to impress him and be on his show and be his friend.  Arthur and his mother watch The Murray Franklin Show just as Rupert Pupkin watched The Jerry Langford Show.  We even see in Joker a scene that turns out to be a fantasy of Arthur’s, in which Murray praises him, just as in The King of Comedy we saw Rupert’s fantasies of being a friend and peer of Jerry Langford.  These connections are clearly intended, because Robert De Niro, who played Rupert Pupkin in The King of Comedy, is in Joker cast in the Jerry Langford role (which was played by Jerry Lewis in The King of Comedy) as the late-night talk-show host Murray Franklin.

In the early going of Joker, I wondered why I was watching this re-do of The King of Comedy.  But when Joker works, it evolves into an even more powerful and chilling character study than that film was.  Rupert Pupkin was easy to dismiss as a weirdo and a kook.  Joaquin Fleck’s Arthur Fleck feels far more real to me in 2019 America.  I can easily imagine that there are a lot of Arthur Flecks out there — broken, lonely people who feel abandoned by society and who are only a stone’s throw away from lashing out violently.

At one point in the film, after we see that the social services which Arthur relied on for counseling and the prescription of medication have been shuttered due to lack of money in the city government, Arthur angrily declares that when someone left behind does something bad, society has gotten what it deserves.  Joker paints a picture of a city where the divide between the ultra-rich elite and the city’s masses of poor had grown into an impossibly large breach, and that schism leads to violence and revolution.  This story is the sounding of an alarm bell that feels scarily prescient.

And the ending of the film shocked me.  It ends, basically, with the Joker triumphant, and with his actions having instigated a riot by a mob of Gotham’s citizens who feel ignored and betrayed by the city’s well-fed elites.  The ending feels to me as angry as the gut-punch of an ending to Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing.  It’s quite a choice.  That the film seems to want us to root for this madman, and the violent overthrow of society, feels almost morally repugnant.  On the other hand, I’m impressed at how squarely the movie puts the audience into Arthur Fleck’s shoes, and allows the story to unfold from his perspective.

Robert De Niro turns in some of his best work in years as Murray.  He’s particularly on his game in the critical scene late in the film in which he and Arthur finally meet, for real, on the set of his show.  Frances Conroy (Six Feet Under) is affecting as Arthur’s ailing mother.  Zazie Beetz (Atlanta) does strong work as Arthur’s neighbor, Sophie.  (I wish she had a more significant role to play in the film, but since the story is told entirely from Arthur’s perspective, it makes sense that she doesn’t.)  I enjoyed seeing Ms. Beetz’s co-star on Atlanta, Brian Tyree Henry, pop up in a small role as a hospital clerk.  Brett Cullen (who, interestingly, also appeared in The Dark Knight Rises) plays Thomas Wayne.  Mr. Cullen is perfect at playing rich and condescending.

The film is interesting in its negative depiction of Thomas Wayne.  Other than references to the location of the film as being Gotham City, and one visit to a State Hospital called Arkham, Thomas Wayne’s appearance is the film’s only major connection to the Batman mythos (with one notable exception, which I’ll get to in a moment).  I was surprised by the film’s approach to Thomas, portraying him as an out-of-touch mega-rich man who is cruel to Arthur in their one scene together.  It’s weird for a film to show the murder of Thomas Wayne and come close to suggesting that he had it coming.  But since Joker is so strongly centered in the perspective of Arthur Fleck, I can understand this choice.

The film’s other surprising-to-me connection to the Batman continuity was its depiction of the murder of the Waynes at the end of the film.  This was a surprising choice for a film so otherwise divorced from the world of Batman.  Frankly, I think it was a mistake.  If Joker wanted to be its own thing, which it so clearly did, then why bring young Bruce Wayne into the story?  The film finds a weird way for the Waynes to be murdered by — while not the Joker himself — other thugs in Joker masks.  The idea of the Joker being responsible for the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents was an invention of Tim Burton’s 1989 film, and frankly it’s one of my least favorite things about that film.  It feels like too much of a coincidence that Batman’s arch-enemy was also responsible for the deaths of his parents.  (Too much like the sort of “small world” syndrome I hate in the Star Wars prequels.  Darth Vader built C-3PO?  Come on.)  In the comics, Batman’s parents were killed by a regular hood named Joe Chill, and I think messing with that classic origin story is a bad idea.

Going into Joker, I’d expected that it would draw heavily from the Joker’s origin as depicted in Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s classic 1988 story The Killing Joke.  Tonally, Joker is quite reminiscent of that tale, but plot-wise, almost nothing from The Killing Joke makes it into the film.  What does make it into the film, to my surprise and delight, was the memorable sequence in which the Joker goes on a late-night talk show and murders the host and others, from Frank Miller’s seminal “last” Batman story from 1986, The Dark Knight.  As soon as I saw that one of Murray’s guests on the night of Joker’s appearance was a Dr. Ruth-type woman, I knew what we were in for, and I got excited.  (What a terrific small detail to borrow from that sequence from The Dark Knight!).  This is a scary and powerful scene of the Joker’s evil.

I’m glad to have seen Joker.  While I’m sad that DC/Warner Brothers seems to have failed, for now, at creating a connected film universe for the DC heroes in the manner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I’m pleased that they’re willing to allow such an unusual and adult take on this material as this film.  It’s not exactly the type of Batman universe story I’m looking for, but I really respect these filmmakers for bringing this vision to life.  Joker is worth seeing if for Joaquin Phoenix’s performance if nothing else.  This is a very adult and disturbing film.  It’s going to stick in my head for a while, that’s for sure.

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