Robert De Niro
From Todd Phillips comes a new take on Joker starring Joaquin Phoenix as the iconic Batman villain in a prequel character study where Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) goes from being a broken, down-and-out party clown to the king of chaos in Gotham City.
Arthur is a lonely clown-for-hire with a sick mother he still lives with and a condition prompting him to laugh uncontrollably in the most awkward moments. He dreams of being a stand-up comedian but, between his condition, his increasingly dire work situation and bombshell revelations at home, it becomes harder and harder for him to see the funny side. Especially when the people around Arthur seem hellbent on making his life even more of a living hell. The only bright spark in all this is Arthur's neighbor Sophie (Zazie Beetz) who lives down the hall and is the only one showing him any form of affection. After losing his job, an altercation on the subway ends in bloodshed and things take a turn for the worse. Seeing his hero, talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), embarrass him on national television certainly doesn't help things either.
Much has been said about Joker since its release, with some dismissing it as a derivative, simplistic society-made-me-do-it tale while others called it a masterpiece. Admittedly, Joker owes a lot to early Martin Scorsese works like Taxi Driver and King Of Comedy but it's also clear that the casting of Robert De Niro in a major role is no accident: this is a nod to those other grim anti-hero character studies, with a comic book twist. To be fair, the Tim Burton Batman films were pure German Expressionism, X-Men spin-off Logan evoked classic westerns, every comic book movie is derivative in some way, Joker is simply more obvious about what inspired it.
And this point leads me to what I think is the most apt criticism one can make about this film. It does everything it sets out to do extremely well but often in a slightly too obvious or heavy-handed way. From the moody cello-led score (which is admittedly very good) to Arthur's clearly unjust treatment at work and at home, and the recurrent laughter/crying contrast, this is exactly what you'd expect an ant melting under a magnifying glass to look like and there's not much there to be surprised about, except perhaps one twist near the end of the film.
What Joker lacks in originality, however, it makes up for in sheer competence. Joaquin Phoenix gives another phenomenal performance: his take on the Joker is very different than any we've seen before even if, costume-wise, there's a clear Heath Ledger vibe. His Arthur Fleck is so fragile it makes numerous scenes quite uncomfortable to watch. That skinny, frail frame and arched back, every wrinkle on Phoenix's face is like a scar telling a story, his muted voice with its tone that's always slightly off, the impromptu dances. Arthur, we come to find, was the performance all along and Joker was the painful truth underneath it all.
This isn't the story of a man pushed to his limits by society, though he does use that as a convenient excuse for his wrongdoings and society certainly didn't help. This is a story about how mental illness and physical abuse, if left untreated or misdiagnosed, coupled with financial strain and a rough upbringing, can force people into unsustainable performances of themselves that will inevitably clash with the world around them and how they really feel. Arthur is not just some angry guy who flips out one day because people are mean to him, he's a man with deeply embedded psychological issues that were never addressed, let alone resolved. What little medical help he is provided with is just not good enough and, when even that is taken away from him, what happens next is tragic yet it feels inevitable.
The themes explored in Joker are important and relevant with director Todd Phillips approaching the iconic villain, his emotions and even the Batman comics as a whole, with a lot of respect and attention to detail. While we empathize with Arthur and his tragic life story, his Joker persona is never truly glorified (except by himself) and his crimes are never excused, even with the social unrest brewing in Gotham City providing just the right environment for them. A key scene in which he confronts his idol-turned-rival Murray Franklin shows him try to rationalize his behavior and, when that doesn't fly with the audience or Murray himself, he resorts to a senseless act of violence. This proves he is unable to excuse what he's done yet it also facilitates his ascension into a symbol of anarchy and chaos. Ultimately, it's the positive attention given to him by a niche group of rioters willing to adopt this destructive mentality that wins over in the end.
Joker won't be to everyone's taste but it remains a carefully crafted, masterfully acted film with a lot more depth than most comic-book movies and there's something refreshing about seeing an origin story that's about the character but also about bigger, more relatable things. It'll be interesting to see where follow-up projects in the same vein will go from there.
Fantastic, no joke.