Todd Phillips’ Joker – Incredibly Well Done, Equally Disturbing…
In 1939, the character Batman was introduced to the world for the first time. Batman has since been the star of nine major movies and is set to be part of a franchise reboot in 2021. What people may not realize is that Batman’s most iconic enemy, the Joker, debuted one year later in 1940 and has been a thorn in Batman’s side ever since. After almost 80 years, the iconic supervillain finally gets to tell his story in Todd Phillips’ dark drama, Joker.
Drawn from the DC character, Arthur Fleck a.k.a. the Joker (Joaquin Phoenix, Mary Magdalene, 2018), is an unpredictable loner who is a clown by day and an aspiring comedian by night. Arthur’s emotions are constantly tested in a crime-ridden Gotham City, where he can’t seem to catch a break professionally or personally. The middle-aged man still lives with his needy, yet smothering mother (Frances Conroy, “Arrested Development,” 2018-2019) in a tiny, worn-down apartment. In between rehashing the humiliations of his day, he also fantasizes about dating his neighbor, Sophie (Zazie Beetz, Lucy in the Sky, 2019) after a brief encounter with her in their elevator.
Taking place in the early 80s, Arthur frequently meets with his social worker. From these sessions, we learn about his upbringing and current state-of-mind. During each visit, she approves his several medications, asks him a few questions and blankly stares at him as he laughs incessantly during moments that are clearly not humorous. Sadly, and ironically, Arthur, a professional clown, has very little to laugh (or even smile) about. His life is depressing and seeing those around him take advantage of his vulnerability is almost too much to bear. To make matters worse, Arthur can’t help that he laughs during inopportune times as he was born with a physical condition that causes him to laugh manically and choke, which especially flares up in public settings.
Despite the title, the film has very serious themes and should not be taken lightly. In the two-hour runtime, audiences are exposed to very real tensions that our society unfortunately faces today such as bullying and discrimination. Individuals want to be themselves. They want to be heard for who they are and not need a mask to do so. This storyline centers on the mental health of people whose well-being are disregarded by society and how mental illness and alienation can snowball. In some cases, it can drive people to act out for attention…even to the point of homicidal fantasies.
Since winning “Best Film” at the Venice Film Festival in August, Joker has sparked debate in Hollywood and beyond. Some feel that the film isn’t sensitive to family and friends of loved ones who have fallen victim to America’s shooting sprees and that it may encourage copycats to act out similarly. Others believe that the film couldn’t come at a better time – when mental health needs to be a top priority in our society.
No matter what preconceptions moviegoers may have, what should be clear is that Todd Phillips created a masterpiece. Lawrence Sher’s incredible cinematography is paired with an unsettling score to match. Phoenix’s unforgettable and potentially Oscar-worthy performance proves that we will never need another iteration of the Joker. He perfectly personifies what the Joker has come to represent after all these years. From the contorted mannerisms, unpredictable behavior, and elongated, terrifying smile, Phoenix truly committed himself to the role. He even lost 52-pounds, which turned him from slim to emaciated, and matches the decay of the character from a lifetime of struggling.
Despite the chaos and intense nature of the film, Phillips doesn’t push for sympathy or judgement. To avoid a ‘spoiler alert,’ all I will say is that Joker will constitute emotions of either frustration or freedom. As I exited the screening, I couldn’t help but become overwhelmed by a flood of reactions, but also in awe of the top-notch filmmaking.
Bottom Line: Despite controversy surrounding the film, Phoenix gives a must-see performance as the deranged Joker in this dark thriller, although the film is certainly not for the faint of heart.
Credits: Directed by Todd Phillips; Written by Todd Phillips, Scott Silver
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix (Arthur Fleck/Joker), Robert De Niro (Murray Franklin), Zazie Beetz (Sophie Dumond)
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures
Running Time: 122 minutes
Jessica DeLong © October 1, 2019