REVIEW: “JOKER” (2019) Warner Bros.

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Is the “Joker” really an achievement in cinematic history or just a deeply dark look into an anarchist, his falling apart life and a city on edge. One thing is sure here, no matter if you loved it or didn’t, it’s a thought-provoking, disturbing two hour long journey, that will haunt you for a time after.

The film offers a dark look of 1970s Gotham City; a dark, gritty atmosphere where there is no joy nor happiness in this world. In many of it’s opening moments, the movie reflects instant “Taxi Driver” and “King of Comedy” vibes – and while not a direct copy – let’s just say JOKER borrows elements ‘liberally’ from both films.   All the political tensions in the city are definitely borrowed from “Taxi Driver” and all the bits with the stand-up comedy from “The King of Comedy”.  Robert De Niro’s character Murray Franklin, is almost an off-shoot of Rupert Pupkin, his character in the Scorsese film.

‘Joker’ morphs itself into a deep character study of Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a man with some psychological and health issues who simply wants to bring laughter to this world by performing as a clown in child’s hospitals and performing as a stand-up comedian. But his mental health and this broken, sad, depressive society of ‘Gotham’ that he lives in don’t allow for that.  He feels they do not let him be the way he is and wants to be, and all the people around him see him as too weird/different and simply want to put him down whether it be in the streets, in his workplace, at his mother’s house etc. to the point where he simply finds a breaking point and loses more of his mind every day that goes by.

This by and by leads him to kill people, and then become a symbol of terror and chaos towards the end. At every moment something seemingly bad happens to Arthur Fleck.  The camerawork is often claustrophobically tight on Phoenix, right from the beginning of twisting and turning and hard to forget collection of haunting laughs.  Phoenix appears in virtually every scene of Joker all of which adds to the film never making you feel as though you were never anywhere, but in Arthur’s tortured head space. Honestly, it’s to a point where you start to wonder how many times is the camera going to pan over Phoenix’s clearly now skeletal frame, noting the 53 lb weight loss for us over and over again.  Same can be said for how many times can one person can be beat to a pulp, and still get up and walk away. Hit by a car..no problem, just get up and run off. Get beaten one day – not even see a doctor – have the same thing happen to you the next day, and viola’ – still fine.  And yes, a whole lot of things happen to him throughout the film – but he gives back as good as he gets. Over and over again, we see him lash out at those who have angered him in even the slightest of manners, though they might have just met.  And that’s where it does get a bit alarming.  The violence is palpable here. Why, say you is this worse than what we see just on regular TV or any other action film?  It’s a plausible question that each person would have to answer for themselves.  The character of the ‘Joker’ seems to scares us just to the point that we don’t see the human in him any more – we only see the killer.

The movie itself, does not praise violence and it’s far from being about making the ‘Joker’ a “hero” or him starting a movement, but it’s not all about a man trying to find himself either. Clearly the story line wants us to feel something for this character and what he has been put through, but it’s hard to find or feel that second where you do. The ‘Joker’ wants you to just feel sad for him, to mourn with him since he never seemed to have any intentions of harming people at first, or did he?  We, the audience understands exactly the things he does throughout the film, and he does them for himself. Because he feels wronged.  Wronged by his mother Penny Fleck (Francis Conroy), whom he lives with and spends her days writing letters to Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), who we find out, is seriously delusional herself all the while wrapping Arthur/Joker up in her fabrications as well. Again, it’s Arthur delusions that make you believe that neighbor Sophie Dumond (Zazi Beetz) is a lover/friend, when nothing could be further from the truth.  Although the character of Zazie isn’t exactly given a much to work with, her end reveal tells a lot.

As solid as Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz and Frances Conroy are in their small roles here, this is Phoenix’s film and he delivers a worthwhile performance even though some of it felt forced, he will almost surely earn himself a nomination at the least. It’s a take on the Joker that differs from Heath Ledger’s, with the main difference might be that Ledger’s joker is a rational that acts insane, while Phoenix’s is insane to the root. Which begs the question again of Phoenix on how much is he playing here. Remember years ago his so-called ‘experiment’ with Casey Affleck in “I’m Still Here” where he was supposedly leaving acting to become a rapper, but it was startlingly real. Some might say a perfect calling for this role.

While first and foremost this is a tale of a man pushed to the edge of his already teetering limits, Joker also manages to throw in a number of surprising narrative and comic book throw backs, some surprise twists (one word: Wayne) that even connects it with the Batman comics that will no doubt be discussed ad-nauseam by die-hard fans.

At the end of the day, whether you end up loving or hating Joker, Todd Phillip’s gritty take on the legendary DC comics villain, there’s no denying that the cinematic comic book adaptations landscape has been changed forever.

Grade: B

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Media Screening: Tuesday, October 1, 2019 ~ Courtesy of Warner Bros.

‘JOKER’ IS OUT IN THEATERS FRIDAY, OCTOBER 4, 2019