By KYLE KERSEY
“Joker” comes into its own within its final thirty minutes, when Joaquin Phoenix combs in the green hair dye, paints his face white and transforms into the titular villain. The rest is Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” in comic book drag, directed by the dude who made The Hangover Trilogy and…“Due Date”?
The story goes like this: Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is a mentally ill man living in 1980s New York Cit…I mean Gotham, working as a clown by day and taking care of his sickly mother by night. Arthur dreams of making it big as a stand-up comedian and appearing on The Murray Franklin Show (Robert De Niro), a Johnny Carson-esque late night talk show. Perhaps the best scene of the movie revolves around this; when Arthur watches a stand-comic perform at a small club, laughing out of sync with the audience at the mundane set-up and staying stone silent during the actual punch lines. He takes crude notes about what the audience seems to find funny that show his misunderstanding as to what actually makes for good comedy.
And let’s just get this out of the way here; Joker is not a comic book movie, more a drama or psychological horror than anything. There are no heroes. Batman is but a kid whose father, Thomas Wayne, has been transformed from a good-hearted billionaire philanthropist to a contemptible exaggeration of Reagan’s “boot-straps” Republicanism; looking down upon the poor rather than seeking to help them. If Christopher Nolan’s version of Gotham was built upon hope in humanity, then Joker’s is built upon pure nihilism.
In the beginning of the film, Arthur is barely functioning; exhibiting a mental condition that causes him to laugh at the most inopportune times and landing him into trouble with street thugs and common folk who either don’t care to understand him or treat his unusual disposition with unflinching disdain. It has that problem that plagues so many ‘80s action movies; villains and criminals committing violent crimes with little to no motivation (think the punks Arnold Schwarzenegger stabs to death in the beginning of the original “Terminator”).
Because of this mental health factor, “Joker” walks the tightrope of avoiding stigmatization of mental illness by delivering heavy handed social and political commentary. It’s made very clear that Arthur’s mental illness alone doesn’t cause his turn towards violence, but rather society’s reaction against it. He loses his therapist and source of medication due to city budget cuts that harm the poor and disenfranchised, as well as brutally beaten and mocked by streetwalkers for the mere crime of being different. The goal is to not vilify Arthur, but to sympathize with his plight.
At the very center of the film is Joaquin Phoenix’s excellent performance. Oddly enough, while everyone was touting similarities to Martin Scorsese classics like “Taxi Driver” and “The King Of Comedy”, all I could think of was Paul Thomas Anderson’s character study of a power-mad oilman, “There Will Be Blood.” Daniel Day-Lewis’ portrayal of Daniel Plainview’s monstrous actions are less a progression of character than a reveal. Plainview doesn’t become any worse than he was in the beginning of the movie; we just see what he’s really like. Phoenix’s take on the Joker is similar, a man who is already unstable at the beginning of the film not descending into madness but finding confidence in it.
The film has a rather slow build, which would be fine if the script Phillips is following wasn’t lacking cleverness and his characters better developed. The few plot twists Phillips employs can be seen from a mile away. It’s the same problem Phillips ran into while directing star-studded comedies like “Old School” and “The Hangover”; films dependent on charismatic performances from their lead actors to carry subpar scripts.
So yes, the execution is hardly perfect and the script is a bit thin, forcing Phoenix to carry the film on his back. And if that’s your main takeaway from this film, then I understand that. I understand why folks will hate the lack of a white-hat hero and decry it as too dark. But there’s also a lot to like in “Joker”, from Todd Phillips’ stripped back, grimy ‘70s visual style to a pretty great string-heavy score that increases with intensity throughout the film. What I like the most, however, is how this breaks the superhero formula DC has been using for years. There’s no giant battle at the end. None of the characters are overly charming. It was made by actual filmmakers rather than a studio. This film gave me hope for DC’s cinematic enterprise for the first time in years.
For context; the lesson DC learned from Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy was that audiences want mature, dark comic book films with brooding protagonists. As such, they plastered this formula onto Superman and created “Man of Steel,” a bloated affront to the senses and one of the worst big-budget movies of this decade. It was the beginning of a trend that has plagued the DC Universe from the better part of the decade now; the studio meddling in every film in an attempt to balance broody, dark (literally) characters Nolan was writing with Marvel’s witty dialogue and greater sense of fun. The result was poor filmmaking and an identity crisis. It was the wrong lesson.
The real reason why Nolan’s Batman movies worked so well was because they were the vision of a filmmaker, not a studio. Nolan was allowed to play with the source material and craft something unique to him and his directing style. And like those films, “Joker” is the result of a person’s vision and its imperfections reflect not studio meddling but the human flaws of the person who made it. For better or worse, “Joker” is the film Todd Phillips wanted to make. If nothing else, it’s the most interesting film DC has released in years.
3 1/2 out of 5 Stars