Directed by Todd Phillips (The Hangover (2011)), Joker is a latest, much-hyped movie starring Joaquin Phoenix (The Master (2012)) in the titular role of Arthur Fleck or Joker, a stand-up comedian fallen on hard times, who resorts to violence in Gotham City to avenge wrongs allegedly committed against him. Being supported by no other than Robert De Niro (a role reversal from The King of Comedy (1983)), Joaquin Phoenix gives the performance in Joker than can only be described as manically jaw-dropping in its brilliance. The character insight and portrayal are also bold, vivid, without holding anything back, as the film tries to explore the origins of Arthur’s homicidal tendencies through his early history and its revelations. However, unfortunately, if we then shift our attention to anything that is not Phoenix or the character study, we can see a number of problems in the film, including the inability to suspend disbelief regarding major plot developments, the sheer predictability of the plot, and the imbalance in the spotlight given to the minor characters vis-a-vis the main one. Joker is a kind of a film that is made up solely out of one character study and cannot show anything for itself apart from its character study and the brilliant performance. If Joaquin Phoenix is not there, there is no film (thankfully, Phoenix is virtually in every shot). Why should that be a problem? Building a film around a character study is one thing, but having a “film” that is nothing but a very “self-important” character study is something completely different (because, in this case, the film seems more like a shameful star-vehicle). There is no Joker, without the Joker, it is true, but when there is nothing but Joker and everything else (not much) in the film is either very awkward, very predictable, very questionable or very puzzling, then there is simply no great film.
The clever thing Joker does is that it induces our sympathy for Arthur Fleck at the start of the film, before turning the tables. Fleck is initially presented as a naïve, misunderstood individual, battling societal injustices (being beaten up by youths in the first five minutes of the film) and caring tenderly for his ageing mother. He suffers from mental health problems and has a strange “laughing” syndrome, which makes him laugh uncontrollably often in inappropriate times and situations (making communication difficult). However, Fleck has his high ambitions to succeed as a stand-up comedian and already set his eyes on his neighbour next-door Sophie for a romantic connection. In this respect, parallels can be drawn with Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) that also explores individual male alienation in a society that misunderstands him. Therefore, it takes an actor with a very special acting skill set, charisma and screen presence to pull off the role of Joker. It is clear that Joaquin Phoenix is one of only very few who can succeed (the two other great actors were Jack Nicholson (Batman (1989) and Heath Ledger (The Dark Knight (2008)). Joaquin Phoenix as Joker is frighteningly compelling, portraying Joker as a truly unstable, unpredictable and increasingly dangerous personality, who can also be charming and a true performer, if he wishes to be.
We also find out that Arthur Fleck worships a successful talk show host and TV star Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), and is happy to dismiss his rising feelings of anger to secure his career success. However, he also starts to reach a breaking point when his life failures mount, his mental state worsens, and his therapy sessions lead to nowhere. We sense feelings of frustration and despair coming from Arthur Fleck, and he becomes a “ticking time bomb”, ready to explode and to have recourse to violence as justified-in-his-view way to get even with society for the perceived wrongs committed against him. As the film continues, we find out more about Fleck, but any surprises in his family history or background may as well leave us indifferent. The film is like a slow train wreck over a rocky path and we can predict accurately both the events along the way, as well as the outcome. Moreover, the situations surrounding Fleck’s crimes are unbelievable, including their detection and investigation, and the film touches upon the story of Bruce Wayne (Batman) very awkwardly and even clumsily. In sum, what does not concern Fleck’s inner being or him directly is simply not that interesting to watch (including any subplots).
Todd Phillips’ direction of drama is really akin to trying to smile when one’s heart is aching, as the song goes. Not smooth and aimlessly drifting between horror and his own sense of comedy, Phillips is trying to make us nervously smile and exchange glances (because we cannot cry) when we see something truly shocking, and something truly shocking we will definitely see. The problem is that there is a feeling that the director is so obviously wants us to be shocked and impressed, relying too much for success on Phoenix’s performance and the right effect flowing from it. The result being is that there are too many close-ups of Phoenix’s face and the general camera-work is unimpressively bizarre. Phillips admitted that he relied on One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) as his inspiration of how to present a character-dominated film, but, if he did so, he failed to see the point. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest had the most memorable larger-than-life main character in cinema – McMurphy – and the lead performance by Nicholson is one of the best. However, One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest is not remembered just for the main character and the lead performance, and there are Nurse Ratched’s cold turns, as well as a group of minor patient characters with their own unforgettable individual quirks (not to mention that ending). All this cannot be said for Joker. The city of Gotham is also presented lazily and without imagination in Joker (a far cry from Tim Burton’s Batman Returns (1992)). In fact, Gotham in Joker is virtually indistinguishable from New York City, with its emphasis on yellow taxis and skyscrapers.
I have so far been critical of Joker, but that does not mean it is not a good film. It is a very good and enjoyable film, with the problem being that it is made so only through the intriguing and fascinating character study, as well as Phoenix’s committed, Oscar-worthy performance. As matters stand right now, Joker even secures a place in my future list of 5 Best Films of 2019, even despite its inability to exist outside of its outrageous character. 7/10