Joaquin Phoenix goes all out as Joker
Director: Todd Phillips
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix (Arthur Fleck), Robert DeNiro (Murray Franklin), Zazie Beetz (Sophie Dumond), Frances Conroy (Penny Fleck), Brett Cullen (Thomas Wayne), Glenn Fleshler (Randall), Leigh Gill (Gary), Bill Camp (Detective Garrity), Shea Whigham (Detective Burke), Douglas Hodge (Alfred Pennyworth), Marc Maron (Gene Uffland)
The mystic of Batman’s nemesis the Joker is his unpredictability, his other-worldly insanity laced with malicious viciousness and an anarchic sense of fun. There is a reason such an electric character has been the go-to for so many Batman related films – and why people are drawn time and time again to re-exploring him. With the DC Universe struggling, it makes sense that a stand-alone film around the most-popular, most-famous comic book villain of all time would be attractive. It’s been a massive success, but is it truly a good movie? I’m not so sure.
Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is a struggling professional clown in 1981 Gotham City, living with his invalid mother Penny Fleck (Frances Conroy). A run-down, dirty and no-good town with astronomical divides between the haves and the have nots, Fleck is a guy who can’t make the world work for him. Dreaming of a being a professional stand up and appearing on the popular nightly talk show hosted by Murray Franklin (Robert DeNiro), Fleck is actually a maladjusted, bitter outsider and fantasist who struggles to adjust to the real world. Will the idea of taking brutal vengeance on those around him, be eventually to tempting to resist? Hey: why so serious world?
Joker is a grim, trying and rather uninvolving film that even contained within a fairly tight two hours still feels like it drags on way too long. It perhaps feels like this because it signposts all its major narrative developments far too far in advance, meaning very little if anything surprises you. Fleck is essentially a time bomb waiting to go off, and everyone knows by the film’s final act he will do. The long wait to get there doesn’t really give us anything fresh or interesting to think about, other than presenting a comic book world mixed with the grimy atmosphere of classic Scorsese films. It’s a film made by people who love classic urban Hollywood films – but who seem unable to bring anything really fresh to a series of ideas better film makers have already had.
Instead it’s a film that relies heavily – in fact is completely dependent on – its inspirations, torn from comic books, other films and news bulletins. Your understanding of Fleck’s character arc is dependent on having some sort of visual image in your head for the Joker. Your appreciation of the film’s style and tone relies on you having seen Taxi Driver and King of Comedy. Your reaction to the sudden growth of flash-mob violence in Gotham depends on you knowing about these attitudes in the real world. The film largely fails to develop any of these ideas organically within itself or its own narrative, but instead throws them to the screen knowing that we will do the work of making them stick on our own with our past associations.
As the film doesn’t really try and build its own ideas, or really try to take ideas from anywhere else to really original places (apart from a few Joker developments which I’ll talk about later), for people who are familiar with its themes and inspirations, it just manages to make for a rather dull watch. The Joker character has been done better elsewhere, King of Comedy and Taxi Driver are films so full of depth and interest around maladjusted losers, stalkers and fantasists yearning for recognition, that this film’s showy coverage of the same ground come across as deep as puddle. Its political positions are so simple, basic and unchallenging that they might as well have come from a school essay.
Both the film’s greatest strength, and its greatest weakness, is Phoenix’s lead performance. There is no question that this is a powerhouse performance, fully committed physically and emotionally. Phoenix has explored every inch of the psychological make-up of a misfit who believes the world owes him something and whose vulnerability eventually becomes twisted into a psychotic rage. As a portrait of the making of a school shooter (say) it’s a fascinatingly successful performance. But it’s also overwhelming. It’s so quirky, so twitchy, so detailed, so mannered it finally becomes too much.
Finally, and this is perhaps intentional, it doesn’t feel like the Joker. When I think of that character, I think of one defined by joy. A twisted sense of joy, a psychotic killer’s joy, but joy nevertheless. Joy is something that never enters Phoenix’s interpretation for a second. This makes sense for the first three quarters of the film, but when the final push of the narrative takes us towards Joker territory, Phoenix’s character is still by-and-large the same tearful, desperate, tragic figure he was before. That doubling down on villainy, that “just let the world burn” anarchism is something completely missing from the performance. It makes the part something that is all impact but no real depth, no real development. It’s a showy performance of tricks and manners, impressive in its commitment but in the end empty and unaffecting.
It also means the film focuses almost completely on Fleck, meaning it has not time to develop its themes of urban clashes and rich vs poor narrative. Instead it just throws these ideas straight in to the film with no real introduction or context and trusts that we will do the work ourselves. It does the same with Fleck’s fantasies and obsessions. It’s no great surprise that all these dreams fail to pan out, and it’s no great surprise that killing ensues. All the victims of Fleck’s rage are completely predictable from the first few minutes, but Phillips film feels like it takes a very long time to get there.
Joker does at least try to do something different, but Phillips film is more a scrap book of ideas and themes explored better elsewhere. Phoenix tries too hard and the film itself ends up telling a not very compelling story. In the end the character of the Joker is fascinating because the character is unknowable, unpredictable, a rootless force of nature. Giving him a back story weakens the character and makes him (and the film) less and less successful. And the general get-out-of-jail card the film holds (and plays) that all or some of this might just be happening in Fleck's fractured mind isn't clever, it's just irritating.