Joker, written and directed by Todd Phillips, it’s the biggest surprise hit of the year. A relatively small budget… I guess, comic book movie in a sea of big budget comic book movies. The grandiose scale of something like Avengers: Endgame is gargantuan compared to Joker. But sometimes (most of the time), throwing a lot of money at something does not necessarily make the end result better.
So let me go back to the very beginning before I take a look at this flick. When Joker was first announced, I was nonplussed. The DC comic book films up to this point had been very, very hit and miss… mostly miss. The whole shared universe they forcibly tried to create just didn’t work at all. Even when DC flicks were ‘good’, they were still very bog standard and lacking in any real character or story. So when a film telling the origin story of perhaps the most famous DC comic book villain was announced, I lost all interest. The first teaser trailer was released and I was even less interested. The first few on-set pictures emerged that showed Joaquin Phoenix in full Joker regalia and the funny memes about McDonald’s began, I joined in. This film was going to be terrible, as much as I thought Joaquin was a phenomenal actor, and he is, this was going to be another DC movie failure, I was sure of it. So I pretty much ignored the film… then the early reviews started to come in a few weeks back. The critical response was insane, everyone was giving the film high marks and extremely favourable reviews. Joker even got an eight minute standing ovation at it’s Venice premiere. Let’s just say that my interest was most definitely piqued.
Still, there was this niggle at the back of my head that all the Joker praise was hype and over hype. Did Warner Bros (distributor of the film) just pay a load of reviewers to praise the flick to gain a lot of interest in an attempt to combat the previous badly received other films? Hey, I’m a cynical thinking kind of guy. It couldn’t be as good as people were saying, it just couldn’t. So sure I was that this film would be terrible that I just could not even open my mind to the slight possibility that just maybe it wasn’t. But there was one saving grace for me, Joaquin Phoenix playing Joker. Even if the film was utterly shit, I knew Joaquin would be amazing.
So when I sat down to watch Joker, I had already decided I was not going enjoy it…
Just a quickie. I’m going to avoid major spoilers, so this is a safe one to read. But I would still suggest that you go into the film completely blind regardless.
So I guess the first thing to cover with this film is the fact that it’s not really about Joker at all. Joaquin Phoenix plays struggling and unfunny stand up comic Arthur Fleck. A middle aged man who still lives with his ill mother in a shitty apartment in crime ridden Gotham City. Arthur is a simple kind of guy, he just wants to look after his mother. He holds down a few menial jobs, sign spinning for a local business, entertaining ill children at a hospital, all while dressed as a clown. Arthur has a heart and is the central figure in the film, not Joker. In fact, Joker doesn’t really make an appearance proper until the last twenty minutes or so.
The film really concentrates on Arthur and his social awkwardness, his mental troubles, his decline as man, his failures, his loose grip on reality and sanity. Arthur suffers from a neurological disorder that causes him to laugh, usually at the most inappropriate times, which often lands him in trouble. His condition is treated via medication from a social services worker but when funding is cut, Arthur is left without his meds, coupled with him losing his jobs, this when things begin to unravel. His mind begins to wander, he starts to engage in flights of fancy.
Arthur tries his hand at stand up comedy… which he is really bad at. But his performance catches the eye of popular talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro) who invites him onto his TV show… and that’s about all I’m willing to give away about the plot here in this article.
As I’ve already said, this is not really about the Joker character despite the title. This film is about the human psyche, the rather taboo subject of mental health and how it is perceived, the breakdown of a man struggling to get a grip on his life. This is a film about Arthur Fleck losing his faith in society and perception of the world. Joker is jet black dark, depressing and yet also extremely thought provoking with an ending that really opens things up for questioning. There are plot lines that are not entirely covered and left up to you the viewer to make up your own mind. It’s a very open film all told, especially the ending. The film allows you to make up your own mind on just what kind of person Arthur is.
Seeing as Joker is Batman’s greatest and most famous enemy, of course there are a few Batman references in the film. They are well done and don’t at all feel intrusive. Well, there is one thing at the climax of the film that did kind of irk me because we’ve seen it so many times before that caused me to roll my eyes a little. No need at all for that particular scene.
Joker is a very slow paced film and one that really focuses on character over plot… and that’s not a bad thing when you have such an interesting character as Arthur Fleck to invest in. Joaquin’s performance is nothing short of genius as the troubled Arthur and you do feel a little sympathy toward him… a little, depending on how you chose view the character. You can really see the gears begin to breakdown in his head as he helplessly descends into madness. This is not a happy film, you won’t come out of it glowing with a smile on your face. Joker is dirty and grimy. It’s downbeat, depressing and exhausting. You’ll feel like you just been dragged through the sewers of Gotham City after watching this and will probably want to take a shower to try and get rid of some of the dirt, though the smell will never leave you.
You ever see the classic film Taxi Driver? Well this has a very similar style and tone.
Joker is brilliant if you are in the right frame of mind for such a film. I was wrong with my initial dismissive attitude toward this movie and that’s something I’m very glad about. Joker is the best film I’ve seen in decades… but it most definitely will not sit well with others.
“The worst part of having a mental illness is people expect you to behave as if you don’t.”
– Arthur Fleck
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