Forever alone in a crowd, failed comedian Arthur Fleck seeks connection as he walks the streets of Gotham City. Arthur wears two masks — the one he paints for his day job as a clown, and the guise he projects in a futile attempt to feel like he’s part of the world around him. Isolated, bullied and disregarded by society, Fleck begins a slow descent into madness as he transforms into the criminal mastermind known as the Joker.
Joaquin Phoenix-starrer Joker, the headline DC movie of 2019, is a comicbook movie in name. But while it is “Based on the characters of DC Comics,” it is, as director Todd Phillips and DC studios have maintained, a standalone film, and in the vein of the best Joker movie of all time — The Dark Knight (2008) — wildly quotable and able to rise above the constrictions of its genre construct.
Arthur Fleck works as a clown at Haha’s, a company that supplies them for gigs at shops and kids’ hospitals, among other things. He lives in a rundown apartment with his mother Penny (Frances Conroy). Apart from his beloved mother, the only other person Arthur has a human connection with is his neighbour, single mother Sophie (Zazie Beetz). Arthur’s neurological condition — Pseudobulbar affect (PBA), unnamed in the movie) — leads to uncontrolled laughter. But while Arthur keeps laughing at and with his pain, poverty and loneliness, the world around him doesn’t care.
Screenwriters Todd Phillips’ and Scott Silver’s Gotham city, is a garbage-strewn, heartless and decaying city, much like the unnamed city in Seven (1995). But while the city of the Seven Deadly Sins had incessant rain as a metaphor for the decay, Gotham a garbage strike and “super rats” symbolising the decaying morals of its residents. The story is set in a period of maybe the 70s-80s, and has numerous parallels with our own times in its troubles. The rich keep getting richer and the poor poorer. Two different versions of the song That’s Life are featured in the film. The lyrics of the Frank Sinatra version that plays in the climax are instructive:
that’s life (that’s life) and as funny as it may seem
Some people get their kicks
Stompin’ on a dream
But I don’t let it, let it get me down
‘Cause this fine old world it keeps spinnin’ around
Plot-wise, the film draws more from two Robert De Niro-starrer, Martin Scorsese films – Taxi Driver (1976) and The King Of Comedy (1982) than from movies or comic books in the DC canon. Arthur isn’t a Vietnam vet (like Taxi Driver‘s Travis Bickle), and neither is the film trying to satirise/critique show business (as in The King Of Comedy), but he is a loner, he is mentally unstable, he is not one of the haves, he sees himself as an up-and-coming stand-up comedian, and his mind and desires take turns for the worse. At one point, Joker seems intent on rewriting the DC canon in a horrifying new way, but thankfully, and painfully, twists that to make the situation even more cruel for Arthur. One huge change the movie makes is inserting the Joker in the life of Bruce Wayne way before he becomes the Batman.
The cinematography, with a yellow tone for the outdoors, and chrome blues for the indoor scenes, uses handheld cameras and moving shots to emphasize the unevenness and upheaval in the protagonist’s life.
Thematically, the question is – What does the movie stand for? What is its message? And it is here that things get clumsy. Gotham’s rich don’t care about its poor, and some of the changes to the canon to that effect will doubtless rankle many Batman fans. The way things end, the message we get there, is also surely going to be divisive. The troubling thing is the correlation the movie makes between Arthur’s mental illness and his embrace of crime. Attempts to read the film as a generalisation of and/or belittling the struggles of people with mental afflictions might be too much, but the movie doesn’t provide any counterpoint to Arthur’s journey and his inability to stop his descent into crime. True, the character Joker is a mentally ill person, with repeated incarcerations in the Arkham Asylum. But there’s the very real issue of gun violence, especially in the US, committed by people who are either later painted by supporters of their cause as mentally ill, or plead the same in the court. The Aurora, Colorado, shooting on the midnight release premiere of The Dark Knight Rises is not too long ago to forget.
The big names that make the acting lineup led by Joaquin Phoenix do a terrific job. Robert De Niro as talk show host Murray Franklin gets the most airtime in a movie where almost every single frame is filled by Phoenix’s spindly frame (slightly muscular than Christian Bale’s in The Machinist (2004), thank God!). From small shifts in expressions to creepy menace to genuine warmth, Phoenix brings out every emotion so well that it seems he’s living and breathing the character. It’s safe to say, in my humble opinion, that he’s a ridiculously strong bet for the Best Actor gong at the Oscars next year.
The movie also represents a triumph for DC. After the scathing reviews and mixed box office returns of tentpoles like Batman v Superman and Justice League, the course correction the studio has been on, with relatively-smaller and -personal films, focussing on the trials and tribulations of a single character instead of aping (and failing at) the Marvel model, has reaped benefits, proving that the successes of Wonder Woman and Aquaman weren’t flukes.
On another level, this film also marks a step in the evolution of comicbook movies from being noisy VFX-heavy, spandex-tight fantastical jamborees to the gritty realism of prestige cinema.
Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐ 1/2
Viewer Guide: Rated R for strong language and some bloody violence. Not for kids, of course. Also, skip if you want an action movie with huge Batman vs Joker fight scenes or some such, or jokes (because, you know, the movie’s called Joker). It’s NOT a funny movie, it’s a character sketch drama. So spare yourself the pain, and avoid spoiling others’ movie-watching experience (yes, that happened with me).
That’s it. “There’s no punchline.”
If you’ve watched the film, or enjoyed reading this review, let’s start a discussion in the comments section.
Thanks for reading.
I haven’t watched the movie yet but reading ur review would help me to get into the mind of joker very well.
Also, I think it’ll sound naive to make u draw a comparison between joker’s portrayal of ledger and phoenix .
Keep writing reviews on movies / series since you’re quite well on deciphering the untold technicalities of the films.thanks.
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Yes, comparing the two portrayals would be doing a disservice to the fabulous performances from both the actors.
Thanks for the kind words. 🙂