Following the mixed results of DC Comics’ first slate of films in their shared universe dubbed the DCEU, Warner Bros. and writer/director Todd Phillips looked to diversify the comic brand’s cinematic output with this stand-alone movie centered on the infamous clown prince of crime.
The character has seen numerous iterations by actors who have made the role their own. From Cesar Romero to Jack Nicholson, the beloved vocal performance by Mark Hamill, and finally the late Heath Ledger, filling in the clown shoes was always going to be a tough task. With numerous actors linked to the role, it was Joaquin Phoenix whom Phillips and Warner Bros. ultimately decided on, elevating all expectations for not just his performance, but the film as well.
This version of Joker follows clown and aspiring stand-up comedian Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix). Opening with his weekly meeting with his therapist and in need of a higher dose of his medication in order to not feel, Arthur goes about his days doing his best, but is beaten both physically and mentally by those around him. Making matters worse for Arthur is his medical condition, which causes him to laugh hysterically in response to hostile confrontations.
With only his ill mother around, Arthur does his best to be the happy son and live out his dreams of appearing on his favorite show, hosted by Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), and romancing single mother Sophie Dumond (Zazie Beetz), who lives down the hall. As Gotham crumbles around him, Arthur begins to unravel in a society that has forgotten him, and forges a new identity for himself to assert his existence.
Joker has easily been the most talked about film in the past month, ever since it made its premiere on the festival circuit. It opened to rave reviews, and more impressively, won the Golden Lion Award — the highest honor at the Venice International Film Festival.
Conversely, the film has also been mired in numerous controversies surrounding its subject matter and the potential violence that could erupt as a result of it, among other things. In all cases, the old adage of no such thing as bad press, will surely pique the interest of those curious to see the film. Joker is definitely a movie that is worth a watch, purely for discussion.
Moving on from his raunchy comedies of yesteryear, Todd Phillips has crafted a film that is well in line with his objective to push boundaries and entertain, but it is also easily his most ambitious and well thought-out movie to date.
Co-writing the project with screenwriter Scott Silver, the duo masterfully infuse their cinematic influences from films such as Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy and Taxi Driver, among other films of that era, with an origin story for Joker that takes various elements from the character’s history, but most notably the seminal comic Batman: The Killing Joke. Even as this film serves as an origin story, it keeps things canonically in line with the origin-less character by creative misdirections and framing Arthur as an unreliable narrator, always putting the audience in question as to whether or not what we are seeing is real or not.
At the core of the film, the driving force of it all is Joaquin Phoenix. With numerous performances to compete with across over 50 years of film and television, Phoenix carves out his own place as a Joker of his time. It is a transformative performance that adds a layer of physicality unlike anything we’ve seen in previous incarnations. Though lacking the intimidation, charisma, and imposing screen presence of his predecessors, Phoenix’s Joker possesses a simmering rage that occasionally surfaces, much like his unnerving laugh that makes him as deadly, if not scarier than previous incarnations. The sudden spurts of violence that his Joker succumbs to is aptly reflective of the society he resides in, as all facades of civility fade away.
Where the film does falter a bit is in its delivery of its social commentary. While the filmmakers try to make the character not beholden to a political message to keep him in line with his canonical portrayals, having him be a reflection of the ills of a forgotten demographic in an uncaring society does end up making him political. As a result, the climactic meeting between Joker and Murray Franklin stands out as a missed mark. Much like Joker realizes later in the film, it isn’t in the message, or lack of intended message, that is the problem, but the lack of foresight of the potential consequences that can occur as a result.
Joker has the most buzz of any film out right now and for good reason. It’s a film that will have you talking about it long after you’ve left the theater and will likely be the subject of film discussions for years to come. Todd Phillips has delivered one of the year’s best films to date — it’s very much worthy of the accolades and praise it has received thus far.
Oscar talk for Phoenix is well deserved and ultimately whichever camp you fall in with in regards to the film’s reception, it cannot be denied that it’s a film worthy and demanding of discussion. ~Paolo Maquiraya
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