Joker (2019) Review
PUT ON A HAPPY FACE
Throughout the years, the DC comic book superhero character Batman has been portrayed in different media facets from the small screen to the big screen, with the character bringing forth all the allies and villains that the “dark knight” encounters as well as somewhat different interpretation of cap crusaders cannon. Of this cast of character, the iconic Batman supervillain known as the “Joker” has been one of those vivid iteration in all of these endeavors; finding the maniac costumed “Clown Prince of Gotham” to being a worthy adversary nemesis for Batman to fight throughout his comic book narratives. Debuting back in the comics in 1940, the character of the Joker has majority been a criminal mastermind, including being a psychopath, as he commits crimes in Gotham and cross paths with Batman. Of course, with all the Batman media adaptations, many acting talents have portrayed the character of the Joker, including Caesar Romero in the live-action TV series Batman (1966-1968), Cameron Monaghan in the live-action TV series Gotham (2014-2019), Mark Hamill as the voice of the Joker in the animated TV series Batman: The Animated Series (1992-1995), Zach Galifianakis as the voice of the Joker in the animated movie The LEGO Batman Movie, Jack Nicholson in the 1989 film Batman, and Heath Ledger in the 2008 film The Dark Knight. Now, Warner Bros. Pictures and director Todd Philips present the latest iteration of the “Clowned Prince of Gotham” in the live-action movie titled Joker, a film that presents an origin tale to the character. With all the inherit hype placed on this movie, is it worth its general hype or does it falter in examining the creation of the infamous Batman supervillain?
In 1981, Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is trying to keep a grip on things in his life, while struggling with his mental health issues, including uncontrollable laughter when his anxiety rises. With a passion for laughter, Arthur has found a calling to be a clown, but life in the city of Gotham is no laughing matter, with Arthur assaulted on the job, only to return home to care for his sickly mother, Penny (Frances Conroy). Despite being heavily medicated to control his mental state, Arthur holds onto a dream of being a stand-up comedian, hoping to appear on “The Murray Franklin Show”, finally getting a chance to meet the late-night talk show host, Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), and wowing him with his performance skills. Unfortunately, his dream grows dark as Arthur, dealing poorly with the loss of his job, gets entangled into harassment on the subway, which results into something troublesome woes for the aspiring comedian. This event sparks a series of events for Arthur, facing a divide society, confront shocking revelations, and falls into madness as the young man gives into his violent inhibitions.
THE GOOD / THE BAD
While I’ve stated that I’m more of a fan of Marvel than DC, I still appreciate and love some of the DC comic book characters and storylines, with perhaps the Batman lore and mythos to be one of the more interesting (almost fascinating) of the bunch. This, of course, plays up all the various different villains that Bruce Wayne / Batman have come across, especially the one considering of the character of the Joker. He’s definitely a great nemesis bad guy foil for Batman to fight against and has certainly been a fan-favorite amongst many of the Batman villains, including myself. Thus, as I mentioned above, there have been many portrayals / interpretations of the Joker in several various media adaptations. While I’ve seeing all of the performances of the ones in my opening paragraph, perhaps the one that had the most profound impact on me was in actor Mark Hamill in doing the voice of the character in Batman: The Animated Series (Hamill also reprised the role in several other projects as well). The dialogue, the delivery of the voice, and that iconic maniac laughter he did was all great, with Hamill sort of being my first introduction to the character. Plus, who could forget that famous line he said in the episode The Man Who Killed Batman; saying “Without Batman, crime has no punchline…”. That being said, I do have to agree that actor Heath Ledger delivered such a convincing and memorable portrayal of the Joker in The Dark Knight; one of which is widely considered to be the best iteration of Batman’s nemesis. I’m mean…. he played that part so well and was one of the best parts of the entire film; putting his own stamp on the character as well as one of the most memorable performance of his career. However, some out there might disagree with me, with Batman fans out there will continue to debate on which Joker portrayal is the best.
This brings me back to talking about the movie Joker, a 2019 motion picture which is set to tell of a origin tale of a new iteration of the iconic Batman villain. As mentioned, the character of the Joker has been played by many different people, so I was kind of a bit, more or less, interested in this film when it was first announced awhile back. I mean….do we really need an origin tale for a Batman villain? Does that mean that every Batman baddie is gonna get their own movie? An origin central focus of Poison Ivy? Killer Croc? Scarecrow? The list goes on. So, as you can tell, I wasn’t super ecstatic about the release of the movie, especially since this meant (around the corner) that there was gonna be another Batman movie sometime soon. However, I was very curious when it was announced that actor Joaquin Phoenix would be playing the title character. Phoenix, who is no stranger for being a bit of a “odd” artisan and is usually attracted to more “eccentric” and “off-beat” character roles / movies, so it can as no surprise when it was announced that he would be playing the role of the Joker in the film. The film’s movie trailer certainly promised the various eccentrics nuances that Phoenix is known for as he really gets into the character and I’m sure would definitely “the fit the bill”. Plus, I was definitely curious to see how the character of the Joker would ultimately play out in the movie and how Phoenix would “stack up” against the other iterations of the character as mentioned above. So, I went to see Joker a few weeks after its release, but I kept on pushing back my review of the movie as I sick (around that time) and got busy with work (holiday retail and all) as well as playing “catch up” with other reviews. Now, I finally have the time to give my personal “two cents” on Joker. And what did I think of it? Well, I really liked it. Despite a few areas that aren’t exactly smoothed over, Joker is a terrific origin focused tale of the title character, with Phoenix delivering a captivated performance in the lead role. It’s not the best DC superhero movie out there, but it surely is up there as one of the better / entertaining features.
Joker is directed by Todd Phillips, whose previous directorial works includes such films like The Hangover trilogy, War Dogs, and Due Date. With his previous directing background in the more comedic realm of storytelling, Phillips does seem like an odd choice for this project, which seeks to portray this iteration of the iconic Batman villain as a more “grounded” character than its comic book source material, including a more psychological understanding of the Joker’s demeanor and mindset. Still, despite this pre-conceive notion, Phillips does succeed (quite well in fact) at helming this project; approaching Joker with a sense of real-world as the feature’s backdrop. Again, despite the film’s source material coming from the realm of comic book superheroes, Phillips does a great job in shaping the feature to be a more “grounded” feature and making its various characters (main or supporting players) to be more life-like rather than larger-than-life characters. This is further realized with the Joker being released in the pinnacle peak of the “golden age” of superhero blockbuster features as Phillips utilizes a more “smaller scale” and seems to be a character study focus within its origin tale rather than a classic superhero origin tale (i.e a freak accident, gifted superhuman powers, saving the world, etc.). This approach is (of course) different from the normal and is quite well-received by many, including myself; finding Phillips making the movie more relatable to us (the viewers) in the real world than more so of costume wearing heroes and mustache twirling villains. In addition, Phillips has a steady hand in making the film’s main focus on Arthur Fleck / Joker. He does go on a few tangents and doesn’t flesh out certain things (more on that below), but his direction for the film and overall organization of Joker definitely works and is where the film is befitted in his directorial guidance.
Giving his “real world” appeal and nuances, Joker’s story is another poignant piece of making the film standing out above the rest. Phillips plays “double duty” on the film as both director and penning the feature’s script (alongside Scott Silver); shaping the written word to flesh out a realistic portrayal of the character of Arthur Fleck from broken mental illness individual to deranged psychopath. Part of this transformation (and its overall fascination) is the journey of getting to those points, with the film’s script showcasing mental illness in a particular individual, how people look upon / treat this individual, and the overall product unstableness within a person (sort of seeing it through society’s eyes). This, of course, makes the narrative of Joker much more palpable than any superhero film out there, with the character of Arthur Fleck descent into madness being more realized as person (in the real world) with mental instability and scarier realized when further examining the real-life acts of violence that are caused by these individuals. It’s kind of very scary thing to imagine that a person like Arthur Fleck in Joker could easily become someone (like him) in the real world. Thus, the film’s script has mirror reflection to the real-world of that aspect as well as society role of social class (i.e the rich vs. poor). Also, with the film rated R, Phillips does showcases the more grounded “real world” violence that definitely work in the film’s favor (in terms of storytelling). As a word of caution, the film is a bit violent of times, so those who a leery of scenes these acts might be warned before watching Joker.
In the presentation realm, Joker is a solid film that surely captures the real-world essence that both Phillips and the film’s story wants to be capture within this cinematic undertaking. Of course, the movie doesn’t need large scale blockbuster aesthetics and visual nuances, but rather goes for a more “grounded” realism; depicting the city of Gotham (the famous fictional DC comics city) has urban cityscape that has fallen on hard times as it’s a lot of citizens are struggling and the beautification of Gotham is nonexistence with piles of rubbish and bags of trash clinging to the streets and nearby buildings. Again, this is a somewhat different approach to the depiction of the city of Gotham and I think its visually speak well (again, its part of the film’s social commentary). Thus, the efforts made by Mark Friedberg (production designs), Kris Moran (set decorations), and Lawrence Sher (cinematography), are terrifically well-represented; making the overall “look and feel” of Joker realistic, believable, and gritty throughout. Plus, while the costume designs by Mark Bridges, look a bit “the norm” for a project like this, the outfit that Arthur Fleck wears when he’s in the full-blown “Joker” getup is terrific, with the entire make-up team for the work on Phoenix’s hair / make-up appeal during this scene. Lastly, while the movie’s score, which was done by Hildur Guðnadóttir, provides plenty of subtle mood music throughout the feature (adding dramatic uneasiness / tension in many scenes), Joker does have a few recognizable music selection songs featured in the film; adding to the movie’s off-beat dark humor and nuances.
While I really did enjoy the movie, there were a few minor nitpicks of criticism that I have with Joker. They are not glaring ones, but ones that have a certain type of blemish on this endeavor. Perhaps the one that’s the most glaring one that I felt was the inclusion of the character Thomas Wayne. Of course, everyone who’s everyone knows that Thomas Wayne is the father of Bruce Wayne (i.e Batman). Thus, with the movie being fitted into this Batman world (i.e Gotham) and the setting up of possible future narratives installments, it seems that the various familiar characters would eventually show up here and there. That being said, the character of Thomas Wayne in Joker seems a bit forced…. almost like being shoehorned in so that we (the viewers) could glimpse into the lives of Waynes in the film. This is most apparent in parts of the main narrative as well one particular scene towards the movie’s ending, which seems completely unnecessary and seems like the film’s script is trying to serve up a “fan moment” of the Batman mythos in Joker.
Speaking of the film’s script, Phillips / Scott’s story, while great, is a bit vague in certain spots. It’s not so much to derail the feature with huge and / or fragmented plot clunks broken or missing, but there are a few spots where I thought that the movie’s story (or plot) could’ve been ironed out a bit; fleshing a few narrative pieces that are thinly sketched out. Coinciding with this, Joker does have a bit of pacing problem, with the movie feeling sluggish a couple of times. This is further realized when examining the feature’s runtime, with the movie clocking in at 122 minutes (two hours and two minutes). It does seem long by the number, which is sort of the standard runtime for some movies, but Joker certainly “feels” longer than it should be. What’s presented works, but I personal felt that the movie could’ve been trimmed down here and there for a shorter time (maybe shaving off five or so minutes) for a better / tighter presentation, with a few scenes being held too long or just a bit unnecessary in the film’s grand scheme of its narrative.
Of course, the success of Joker, despite whether you like the movie or not, rest on the shoulders of actor Joaquin Phoenix in his portrayal of Arthur Fleck (i.e the Joker) in the movie. Fortunately, Phoenix, known for his roles in Gladiator, Walk Hard, and Her, succeeds in the role and certainly knows how to play the character; making Arthur Fleck come alive with enough big-screen presence and grounded realism. Much like the character himself, Phoenix (as mentioned above) has always been a little bit of an “oddball” and his past character performance and / or the movies that he usually partakes in captures the essence of that quite well. Thus, the idea of him playing the “Clown Prince of Gotham” is really no stretch of the imagination and Phoenix quite excels in playing up the madness of the character. With the movie being more of “grounded” tale, the Joker has a more “realistic” origin and its quite fascinating to see Arthur’s journey (a sort of “descent into madness”) as the movie’s story unfolds and seeing Phoenix handle the wacky / mentally “offbeat” personality of Arthur Fleck is nothing short of genius. You certainly feel his pain and struggle throughout majority of the film, which cast a real-world light upon the struggle of mental illness and of today’s society, and Phoenix’s portrays those emotion imbalances perfectly; creating a character that is more of normal everyday person than a supervillain in a comic book. In the end, whether do or don’t agree with me about Joker, no one can deny the truly captivating performance that Joaquin Phoenix pulls off; giving one of the best performances of his career.
This, of course, brings me the ultimate movie debate of which Joker portrayal is better…. Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight or Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker in Joker. The answer…it’s hard to say as both roles are played exceptionally well and definitely fit their respective movies. However, the portrayals of the character are quite different and (again) fit the role of which their films call. What do I mean? Well, Ledger’s Joker is the central villain antagonist in The Dark Knight and acts more as anarchist / terrorist who (just like Michael Caine’s Alfred says) “just wants to watch the world burn”. Again, it’s a perfect fit and definitely is a terrific bad guy in the movie. Phoenix’s Joker is of a different variety, with the character being central focus on Joker and is more of a psychopath (a somewhat product of mental illness and of society); fleshing out his origin in a more real-world and grounded way. So, as you can see, the two iterations of iconic Batman villain are quite different from each other. That being said, let’s examine the two actors that plays this character. Phoenix, who is more inclined of choosing eccentric / off-beat character roles, seems like he would gravitate towards this role; making him an ideal choice for the madness instability character. Ledger, on the hand, was more of the “clean cut” of the two and his past roles usually offered him to be the leading man variety (handsome, charm, etc.). So, I was quite surprised (and mesmerized) by his role of the Joker in The Dark Knight as it was something different for what he usually performed as. Thus, both portrayals are certainly memorable for their own merits (and justly so). That being said…. which was I more surprised with? That would be Heath Ledger’s Joker more so than Phoenix’s Joker. But again…. that’s my own personal opinion.
In large supporting roles, actor Robert De Niro plays the character of Murray Franklin, a late-night talk show TV host who the character of Arthur Fleck admires and wants to be on his show. Known for his roles in The Irishman, Taxi Driver, and Raging Bull, De Niro is quite certainly a seasoned veteran actor of Hollywood; having starred in many feature films over the years (mostly good, some iffy-choices). Thus, De Niro certainly brings a veteran gravitas to the Joker; anchoring the feature with his screen presence whenever he’s on-screen. Of course, De Niro is a skilled actor and plays up the talkative nature / persona of late-night host, with plenty of witty remarks of various topics. Thus, De Niro is great in playing Murray Franklin. Behind De Niro, actress Zazie Beetz plays the character of Sophie Dumond, a cynical single mother and who Arthur takes a liking to. Known for her roles in Deadpool 2, Atlanta, and Still Here, Beetz is a likeable actress (loved her in Deadpool 2) and does a solid job in her role as Sophie in Joker; offering comfort and warmth to Arthur when his troublesome woes arise. However, given the narrative’s structure (of which I can’t spoil), her character build is a bit flat, but it’s something that makes sense as the story progresses towards the third act. Still, Beetz does a good job as Sophie.
The rest of the cast, including actress Frances Conroy (American Horror Story and 6 Souls) as Arthur’s mentally / physically ill mother Penny Fleck, actor Glenn Fleshler (Boardwalk Empire and Billons) as Arthur’s clown co-worker Randall, actor Leigh Gill as Arthur’s other clown co-worker Gary, actor Brett Cullen (Under the Dome and 42) as billionaire philanthropist / running for mayor of Gotham Thomas Wayne, and actors Bill Camp (Dark Waters and 12 Years a Slave) and Shea Whigham (Boardwalk Empire and Silver Linings Playbook) as Gotham Detectives Garrity and Burke, make up the rest of the supporting players of the movie. As always, some have a bit more screen-time as others, but all of these acting talents (in this category) are solid in their respective throughout the feature.
I used to think that my life was a tragedy, but now I realize, it’s comedy as Arthur Fleck confronts revelations of his past and descends into his own mental madness in the movie Joker. Director Todd Philipps latest project takes center focus on the iconic Batman villain character in an origin tale of sorts; grounding the feature in realism of today’s society of social division and of mental illness. While the film has a few minor problems in certain areas (pacing and fleshing out certain narrative threads) as well as trying to “shoehorn” into several aspects of the Batman mythos, the movie still finds success within its grounded narrative, especially thanks to Philips’s direction, a gritty / grim cityscape of Gotham, an informative mirror reflection of society commentary messages, an updated “real world” tale of the Joker’s origins, and a solid cast, with a masterful performance from Phoenix. Personally, I really liked this movie. It was a bit “iffy” about this movie before it came out and that the early hype for the film was gonna be “wrong”, but I found Joker to be quite a compelling piece of cinematic storytelling. Plus, who could not give a stand ovation for Phoenix’s performance in the movie. Thus, my recommendation for the film is a solid “highly recommended” as it one of the movies that’s definitely worth the hype. In the end, whether the movie garnished your praise or polarized your opinions, there’s no doubt that Joker left its mark on the Batman mythos; creating a spin-off origin tale to the “Clown Prince of Gotham” and delivers praise within its lead character performance as well as updating the comic book material for an intriguing / entertaining character of study of mental illness and society that’s wrapped in a superhero guise.
4.5 Out of 5 (Highly Recommended)
Released On: October 4th, 2019
Reviewed On: January 2nd, 2019
Joker is 122 minutes long and is rated R for strong bloody violence, disturbing behavior, language, and brief sexual images