Directed by Todd Phillips
Let's get this out of the way first. Joaquin Phoenix saves Joker. Without Mr. Phoenix, Joker would be kind of dull. Without Mr. Phoenix, there would be no danger. As it is, even with Mr. Phoenix Joker, isn't as smart as it thinks it is. At times it feels like first year psych mixed with first year philosophy, with a dash of some half read Thomas Harris novels. It often mistakes nihilism for dark, predictable for edgy. Humourless for serious. Style for substance.
This isn't me saying I didn't enjoy Joker. I did. Is Joker a great film, like the filmmakers think it is? Not really. Is it a good film? Yes, yes it is. But that's the Phoenix quotient coming into play. Without Joaquin Phoenix, Joker might not be good at all.
What else is Joker not? It is not a remake of Taxi Driver, though there are moments that are meant to remind the audience of Travis Bickle. But, the finger gun to the temple is recurring motif. It is not a remake of The King of Comedy, though Robert De Niro is playing a role meant to remind of us of Jerry Lewis' Jerry Langford. And Joaquin Phoenix's Arthur Fleck hangs a blanket and practices walking through the curtain onto the talk show stage. Joker isn't based on any existing DC story, has no place in the Batman mythos. But there are moments taken straight from the pages of The Dark Knight Returns and Killing Joke.
What is Joker then, I can hear you asking patiently. Well, at times it's incredibly uncomfortable. I started to squirm somewhere between the comedy club called Pogo's, which was the name of John Wayne Gacy's clown persona and Joker's sharp edged clown make-up, which is based on the clown make-up of, well, John Wayne Gacy. Joker isn't going to do any clowns any favours. Heck, after this and It: Chapter 2, I'm hoping for a feel-good clown movie, something clown positive. Anyway. This is reading pretty negative, I better get to some of the good. I mean, I did enjoy this movie.
I enjoyed Lawrence Sher's cinematography. The movie looks like it was shot in 1981. The yellows and the beiges and the grain and the grit. It all has a dirty, washed out look. But it goes deeper than that. The movie has a texture that can be found in low budget movies from that era. It's something almost tangible. None of the colours really pop until Arthur Fleck is in full make-up, dancing down stairs that belong in Georgetown, behind the MacNeil home. It's one of the moments that elevates the movie into something approaching greatness. Arthur Fleck in a suit the colour of dried blood, clown make-up on, hair coloured with a hint of green, dancing to music only he can hear, as he makes his way down stairs straight out of The Exorcist.
I also enjoyed the details - smoking everywhere, the layer of grime and soot everywhere, the smudged mirrors and peeling paint. The yellow teeth, the stained fingers. It's rare the film that conveys what it must smell like in the world it has created. Joker pulls that off and then some. This is a movie that smells like cigarette smoke and lead exhaust. This is a movie that smells like TV dinners and cabbage. That smells like sweat and desperation and panic. People looking for their comic book movies to be shiny and fresh and antiseptic should look somewhere else. This is a gritty comic book movie that makes other gritty comic book movies look like Wonderful World of Disney.
And then there's Joaquin Phoenix. At this point, to say Joaquin Phoenix is a great actor is kind of like saying the sun is nice or bacon tastes good. In Joker he contorts himself, externally and internally. He is incredibly uncomfortable in his own skin. He has a choking, gasping laugh when he is under emotional stress, almost like a form of Tourette's. He also has a high pitched laugh/giggle that is always misplaced, always coming at inappropriate moments or a beat late. It's like a hyena that doesn't understand humour but is trying, desperately, to fit in. A large part of what makes Joaquin Phoenix's Arthur Fleck tick might be his desperation. He just oozes desperation. It comes off of the screen in waves. It's a challenge for the lizard part of our brains to feel any sympathy or empathy for Arthur. He is desperate to be the hero of his own story. He is desperate for his mother's affection. He is desperate for honest human connections. But he is a psychopathic loser who just stumbles from one accident to the next, rarely taking any initiative. And when he does take initiative, it's the stuff of nightmares.
And somehow, using his almost supernatural gifts, Mr. Phoenix brings this character to life.
Maybe it's because the character of The Joker was never given a clear origin, is an almost blank slate, maybe it's this that has allowed multiple artists to create unique and individual characters. Cesar Romero, Jack Nicholson, Mark Hamill, Heath Ledger, Jared Leto, and now Joaquin Phoenix. They all created individual characters that have little in common except some face paint and extremely anti-social behaviours. It's fascinating and there is little like it in popular culture. We should get into this discussion some time over beverages, adult and otherwise.
And now let us wrap this up. I liked Joker, I enjoyed the film. Did I love it? Nope. Did I dislike it? Nope. Maybe if the script was given another pass, maybe if someone had realized the pop psychology was doing no-one any favours, maybe the film could have been better. Is Joker worth seeing? Possibly. Maybe. It's your hard earned money. If for nothing else, see it for Mr. Phoenix's performance. This is highlight reel stuff.