Director: Todd Phillips
Screenwriters: Todd Phillips and Scott Silver
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Frances Conroy, and Zazie Beetz
Todd Phillips’s dark origin story of the nefarious, titular Clown Prince of Crime is a moody film that feels much closer to the Christopher Nolan vision of Gotham City’s milieu than any of the most recent efforts in the DC universe. And by universe, I mean adaptations of material from Detective Comics because the makers of Joker have made it quite clear that this film is not part of what has been called the DC Extended Universe, which includes films like Batman v. Superman, Wonder Woman, and Aquaman.
Joker is drawing comparisons to Martin Scorsese’s 1976 thriller, Taxi Driver as well as to his 1983 dark comedy, The King of Comedy. These comparisons are quite justified as all three films explore celebrity, sub-cultural unrest, and showcase the talents of Robert De Niro. These comparisons come ironically on the heels of Scorsese’s own recent public comments in Empire magazine that other comic book movies are “not cinema.” Whether or not Scorsese has seen Joker remains to be seen, but there’s no doubt the film is heavily stylized and inspired by his early works. But this film is much more than a Scorsese tribute; it is actually quite an astute commentary on some very difficult issues to discuss, making it one of the most necessary films produced this year.
At its core, Joker is a character-driven story about Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a meager, struggling performer hoping to someday be a stand-up comedian. Fleck also has a “condition” which manifests as uncontrollable laughter at inappropriate times. The film quickly establishes that this is a film about man vs. society where Fleck’s numerous mental illnesses result in a rejection from society regardless of his desire to be part of it. Fleck is literally beaten at one point by some kids simply because he stands out. This significant but minor violent experience results in a series of events that eventually see Fleck unemployed, unsupported, and friendless.
To make matters worse, Fleck, who lives at home with his mother Penny (Frances Conroy) discovers that he may be the illegitimate son of billionaire Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) who ultimately abandons both Penny and Arthur. The film is quite ambiguous on this point, and so I leave it up to your interpretation on exactly what is going on here, but suffice it to say, just the idea of it would certainly contribute to Arthur’s coming unhinged. Phoenix is excellent in this film allowing Fleck’s struggles to feel very real and human. His decisions, as radical as they are, all come from a raw and authentic place within the character that Phoenix is able to capture and put on display in a very captivating way.
Joker as a film also does an excellent job of pitting this dynamic individual against a society that is crumbling into chaos and compartmentalizing into a vastly unsettling class struggle. There is no need to underscore the parallels director Todd Phillips is attempting to draw between Gotham and say New York City. The rich are getting richer, the poor are being underserved and beaten down. Fleck simply wants his chance at the American dream, but the more he looks around, the more he notices that the dream is not attained, it’s taken by whoever wants it most by whatever means – which in itself distorts the “American Dream” into something entirely different. You can be rich and famous in America if you’re lucky enough to have it already or if you’re bold enough to destroy others to get it. Jesus Christ – that’s a scary thought! Fleck’s one dream is to be a stand-up comedian and perform for his favorite late-night talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro). The film wisely frames the film’s climax on this notion, and what transpires is compelling and profoundly unsettling. Not because it is necessarily “shocking” but because of what it does to us as viewers who will no doubt be feeling a variety of conflicting emotions by the end – all worth examining.
The film does wind up in some familiar territory at the end that on its surface feels a bit unnecessary; however, when reflecting on the film as a whole, and depending on where you sit on certain interpretations of events, the significance of the film’s final scene is quite subjective. Joker is at its worst, a conversation piece, and at its best the most socially significant American film released this year. A-
Joker is Rated R and has a running time of 2 hours and 2 minutes.