The Joker is a fascinating topic. Since his character’s inception, he has essentially set the standard for comic-book villains. He personifies pure chaos, a mad man without an overt motive. Heath Ledger’s 2008 portrayal withstood the test of time for a myriad of reasons. There has been enough talk around The Dark Knight, however. Todd Phillips (director of The Hangover, Starsky & Hutch, and Old School) was a surprising choice to direct such a character. Although the Joker incorporates humor into his operations, comedy is, of course, subjective. At first Phillips’ inclusion worried me. I didn’t want this movie to be some kind of try-hard dark comedy. Honestly, though, I never really wanted a Joker movie in the first place. Origin stories tend to dry out rather quickly for me. According to Nolan’s opus, the villain’s origin works better while shrouded in mystery. Yet I am glad this film exists.
Enter Arthur Fleck. He is a gangly man still living with his mother. The city of Gotham insists on treating him poorly whether he has good intentions or not. He works as a clown-for-hire among a handful of Gotham’s other rejects. The film opens with Arthur sitting at his desk, applying his make-up in the mirror. Radio airwaves relay the tone of Gotham City, a bleak and corrupt town ravaged by the dichotomy of greed and desperation. We cut to Arthur twirling a going-out-of-business sign. He dances and puts on a happy face amidst the grime of the city streets. Tragedy ensues nonetheless. A group of teenagers snatch the sign from Arthur and send him on a wild goose chase. They lead him to a dark alleyway. He is right where they want him. Boom! The sign smashes into Arthur’s face, igniting an unjustified beatdown.
His life is a ceaseless cycle of negativity. For starters, he never finds out who his real dad is. Additionally, he is a victim of pathological laughter. Instead of crying, blushing, or shuddering he involuntarily laughs. Needless to say, this condition alienates him on a regular basis. It seems as though everywhere Arthur goes only darkness resides. Joaquin Phoenix’s performance, a poignant devolution of the human spirit, is one for the record books. Upon multiple viewings, the degradation of his character’s psyche becomes that much more captivating. Once I saw his name on it, I knew I had to see this movie. He takes his craft hyper-seriously, though some might say too seriously. Nevertheless, I’m a huge Joaquin fan. He does not disappoint here. Despite the film’s murky pace, Phoenix propels the film forward in a mostly entertaining fashion. If you appreciate dark, dark humor, you’ll love this movie.
However, if you’re more on the lighthearted side of things, this film might derail your pre-viewing expectations. This isn’t one of those built-for-the-masses type of comic-book films. Personally, I despise that obligatory layer of cheese studios slather onto these types of movies. It makes danger feel like a complete joke, which it certainly is not. Arthur’s life is nothing more than a giant middle finger to hope itself. For the Fleck family, insanity is their normality. He has never known a time when things actually went right for him. The formula for happiness — whatever that means — seems to be one finding one’s purpose, pursuing said purpose, encountering obstacles, discovering the method for hurdling said obstacles, and finally achieving one’s goal. Yet the likelihood of success remains relatively low. Life does not care if you’re tired, anxious, or sad. Life progresses; so must we. Arthur Fleck, though, is a different story.
Some people never truly find their purpose amongst all the noise of the world. Others simply discover that what they thought they wanted isn’t their calling after all. Repeating the process of self-transformation following a failure takes an incredible amount of will. For Arthur Fleck, all he wanted was for people to notice him. He wanted to feel existence. He had been walking the streets of Gotham for 30 years never feeling like he belonged. That is a notion I would not wish upon any human being. His bitterness turned to resentment, resulting in a vengeful manifestation of pure and utter chaos. So, even though our protagonist in this story is not a hero, his is a story that must be told. It is unfair to assume that madness births from thin air. In order to escape the darkness of his world, Arthur Fleck had to become the darkness.
*Cue Joker laugh* … Despite all the hoopla surrounding this film, I recommend to just relax. If you want to see this movie, go see it. It’s worth the price of admission. If it’s not up your alley, that’s cool too. Yet be aware that you’ll be missing out on one of the best-shot films of 2019. Cinematographer Lawrence Sher delivers an array of emotive frames worthy of Oscar consideration. After his villainous transformation, the Joker dances behind a colorful curtain prior to guesting on his favorite childhood late-night talk show. Sher captures the beauty of ignorant awkwardness. That is a shot I won’t soon forget. The scene with a young Bruce Wayne had excellent symmetry as well. Now, lemme mention what I didn’t love real quick. In spite of Joaquin’s stellar performance, the film’s plot dragged a bit for a good 40 minutes or so.
Also, Arthur’s imaginary girlfriend never felt like a necessary story element. She enhanced the idea of his insanity, sure. But overall, it felt more like a cheap plot device than a meticulous puzzle piece, if that makes sense. Many of the scenes here make perfect sense and do well to embody a crime-ridden setting. Yet the setup moments pale in comparison to the film’s final act. I understand it’s easy to get caught up in the hype of the Joker reveal. Perhaps I have here. But I don’t envision any of these scenes living past the year 2019. Phoenix’s performance is memorable beyond a doubt, but the cinematic space surrounding him continually exists within the ordinary. In other words, it feels as though the movie itself is watching Joaquin rather than competing with him. I needed more umph and development from the other characters. Regardless, I enjoyed this one.