joker_ver2STARS3.5There’s a moment in Joker that takes place on a subway where three bro-ey guys in suits are behaving in an obnoxious and contemptible way.  They’re rich white well-dressed types and they’re hitting on a woman who clearly isn’t interested.  Our protagonist Arthur Fleck sits farther away keeping to himself.  He will ultimately become the title character but that happens much later.  The dudes soon set their sights on hapless Arthur.  The scene will end in three deaths but it’s symbolic of something much more fascinating.  You see douchey frat boy figures were once the heroes of a movie called The Hangover back in 2009.  Todd Phillips directed that film as well as this one.  Oh, how times have changed over the past decade.

Joker is an origin story about the villain who first appeared in the debut issue of the DC creation Batman back on April 25, 1940.  However, the atmosphere here goes to conspicuous lengths to separate itself from being a typical comic book feature.  It’s an evocative period piece set in 1981.  There’s a bit of Sidney Lumet (Dog Day Afternoon, Network) and Water Hill (The Warriors) in there.  However, Joker has a lot more in common with a couple of flicks directed by Martin Scorsese: Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy.  Those classics are the blueprint of this movie.  Robert De Niro even appears as a talk show host like the one that Jerry Lewis portrayed.  The subtle distinction between homage and rip-off is really put to the test.  I suppose your judgment will rest with how entertained you are by the final product.  There’s nothing wrong with being influenced by other directors.  I was engrossed and occasionally appalled at various points throughout this drama.  However, my attitude veers closer to admiration than disgust because this is a compelling chronicle.

Joker wallows in an alternative view of New York society called Gotham where depravity and inhumanity are borderline de rigueur.  It is a presentation of how hateful and nasty and empty the world is.  The irony is, the film itself is hollow as well.  The screenplays of Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy were complex.  The political commentary of the script by Todd Phillips and Scott Silver is a superficial examination.  It has absolutely nothing to say about the civilization it presents.  It merely creates a community that is so uncaring and so awful that violence seems like an acceptable response.  The Joker sees himself as a victim and we the audience are supposed to view him in the very same way.  There is no insight.

What Joker has is a bravura performance by Joaquin Phoenix that invites the viewer to sympathize with an individual you never thought you’d side with.  We watch him kicked and beaten and punished and belittled so mercilessly that when he finally rises up and shoots a man point-blank in the face with a gun, it’s a cathartic display toward a callous character.  We almost understand his frustration.  This won the top prize at the Venice Film festival.  The win was surprising but not unexplainable.  This movie is very much a product of our times.  Joker casually exploits hot button topics like bullying and mental illness for his descent into violence.  Oh and be forewarned, this can be extremely brutal.  Two murders, in particular, are exploited for shock value.  However, they’re so over-the-top under the guises of a comic book that the drama kind of gets away with it.

The Joker has been played in theatrical films by Jack Nicholson, Heath Ledger, Jared Leto and now Joaquin Phoenix.  The part is like the Hamlet of our age.  Joaquin Phoenix is indeed great.  He swings for the fences in a scenery-chewing role.  He lost weight and looks physically emaciated.  He bursts into uproarious laughter at inappropriate moments and dances with a showy flair.  It is an act that is going to polarize people because it is an overwrought and risky exhibition.  I dug it quite honestly.  I was captivated throughout.


8 Responses to “Joker”

  1. Mark, nice writing as always. But as a frequent reader of your site, am genuinely curious. why would you give thumbs up to a film like Joker but a big thumbs down for Split. Don’t they both exploit mentally ill characters ?

    Am hoping you don’t take this question as any form of shame, negativity, etc.. I still have the same question for the late Roger Ebert. Why would he approve of ‘the Orphan’ And yet strongly disapprove of the Good Son. Maybe i am missing something or have yet to fully understand film criticism.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I love the question.

      They both concern people who are mentally ill but Split is exploitative and Joker is not. The reasons why are in the delivery. I bought into the character that Joaquim Phoenix portrayed in a way that I didn’t with James McAvoy.

      The films are quite different also in that the Joker is presented as a sympathetic character for most of the film. Kevin (James McAvoy) was just bad. There was no nuance to his character. Just a grotesque individual behaving badly.


      • I understand now and see your point. Macavoy’s character was simply bad without reason or motive.

        Am still unsure of wether to watch the Joker though. It’s just that when we read about what happens in real life, its a little uncomfortable to see this kind of movie. Even if Phoenix creates a sympathetic character, he
        basically goes on a revenge-spree, a theme which the movie seems to exploit like a Death Wish type of movie. Then again, I haven’t seen The Joker

        Still, your response was helpful and allowed me to understand another perspective.Thanks.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. GaryGreg828 Says:

    Mark, i rarely read reviews anymore, but i wanted to see your review for this one. Overall, I liked it, but I hated the way they vilified Thomas Wayne, basically hinting as if Batman turns out to be a villain and Joker a hero. Arthur shooting Murray was highly uncalled for; the guy roasted your terrible stand-up. Learn to laugh at yourself. 🙂

    With that in mind, though, I thought the final act was brilliant, particularly the entire sequence on the Murray Show – and the dance on the steps; both will be memorable images in cinema for decades. It’s great to see a film like this come along that you can recognize as an instant classic, even if you’re not necessarily a big fan of it.

    So, do you think this will make your top 10 for 2019? I always like reading your top 10 of the year list. And you know what, you should make a top 10 for the decade, also! 🙂


    • If it helps, this was an alternate perspective told from the Joker’s point of view. He was a particularly unreliable narrator so nothing you see can be trusted.

      I doubt it will make my Top 10 of the year. Although this has been a particularly bad year for movies so who knows? 😆

      Liked by 1 person

      • GaryGreg828 Says:

        yeah, i haven’t seen anything too great this year other than Joker. I bet your top 10 Worst Of 2019 will be crowded; maybe do a top 5 best of 2019, and a top 20 Worst Of. lol.


    • Joaquin was this movie. He played it perfectly. Movie however was very dark and somber. Curious to see where this goes from here. 3 stars

      Liked by 1 person

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