October 5, 2019
Joker (2019) Joaquin Phoenix, Zazie Beetz, Robert De Niro Co-Written and Directed by Todd Phillips
"Better the blind man who pisses out the window than the joker who told him it was a urinal. Know who the joker is? It’s everybody." Joaquin Phoenix (Arthur Fleck)
The idea of glib Todd Phillips making a movie about the Joker made me uneasy from the get go, the guy who made The Hangover, Road Trip, and Old School (all films I admittedly like) is going to give us yet another supposed “fresh” take on a character we have seen ad nauseam in popular culture? Seems unlikely. I believe Phillips really loves 1970s character study films, I do too, I long for films like that to be made and made well, but the idea of sneaking a film like that past a studio today under the guise of a comic movie, isn’t smart, in fact it’s remarkably lazy. Unfortunately, if you want to see Lazy Taxi Driver or Less thoughtful King of Comedy then Joker is your film, but if you want to see a great character study film, watch the Scorsese originals (or maybe Fincher’s Fight Club), they are leaps and bounds better than this film.
Writer/Director Todd Phillips brings the Joker back to the big screen…again (and only 3 years since we last saw him) this time imitating Scorsese films to an uncomfortable degree, making Joker not quite as smart as it thinks it is. Arthur Fleck (a strong Joaquin Phoenix) is a mentally ill loner whose life seems to be at a tipping point. He isn’t funny, he seems a bit dangerous, and he laughs a lot (not because he is crazy, but because he has a condition?). Just like the film is a bit of a mash up of Scorsese films, this Joker is a bit of a mash up of all the previous Jokers, problem is, we have already seen better versions of that (Nicholson, Ledger, and Hamill namely). Arthur’s journey is that of a damaged lonely man, trying to make the best of a rough existence. The backdrop is the old pre-Batman days of Gotham where the gap between the rich and the poor is causing unrest in the city. Arthur makes attempts to connect with people, he has a crush on a neighbor (the lovely Zazie Beetz of Deadpool 2), and he cares for his sickly mother (played well by Frances Conroy), a former employee of Thomas Wayne, but struggles to know his place in this world. Arthur wants to bring people joy by doing stand-up comedy, so he keeps a notebook of all his jokes, but he often mixes in suicidal and dark thoughts. His stand up is so bad it sparks interest from a popular TV show host Murray Franklin (played interestingly by Robert De Niro), who invites him on his show, presumably to make fun of him and give him a chance to defend himself. Things take a turn for the worse as some not so well concieved plot points unfold and Arthur loses it and turns to violence, becoming something of a symbol for those who are lost and feel disenfranchised. Even though things are bad for Arthur, there really isn’t enough there to show why he finally breaks and becomes violent as he does, and he doesn’t seem to be a sociopath, so I’m not sure Phillips really thought this story through. The Joker does have some very sharp cinematography done by Lawrence Sher (most recently Godzilla: King of the Monsters and memorably Garden State), as well as cool score by Hildur Gudnadottir (recently did the HBO miniseries Chernobyl), both the cinematography and score suggest weight and depth, as if the events happening in the film are important and very meaningful, but sadly Joker is too derivative and shallow to deliver on that notion of depth. Even as a comic movie it falls quite flat (I won’t spoil anything but trust me you’ll see things you have seen before, many times). In one shot of the film, Arthur sneaks into a showing of Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 film classic Modern Times, this scene is shot beautifully, but I couldn’t help but feel uncomfortable with Chaplin’s classic being shown in Phillips Joker film, it felt wrong. I believe Phillips thinks he has made a great film, in fact I’m sure he believes War Dogs is a great film also, but Joker like War Dogs is too shallow and empty to be a classic, in fact I am not sure in a few years if this film will matter at all. I do think a younger generation, influenced by comic writers Denny O’Neil and Alan Moore Joker stories will like parts of this film, and many fans of The Dark Knight will see Phoenix as the rightful (certainly better than Jared Leto) heir apparent to the Ledger Joker, but those of us who have been around awhile are probably better served just watching Jack Napier, Travis Bickle, Rupert Pupkin, or even The Animated Series: Batman Mark Hamill performances. MISS IT (or at least don’t rush)!
(The Shawshank Scale 1-10) Phillips should maybe go back to comedy after this lackluster attempt to imitate Scorsese. Joker is too bleak and cynical for its own good, its redeeming qualities are the things that are stolen from better films and if not for some solid acting it would be a total bust. See it, but don’t rush, and if you miss Joker, don’t worry another version of this character will surely pop up in a year or two. Joker gets a less than side-splitting 5.5 on THE SHAWSHANK SCALE.
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