Movie Review: “Joker”
Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is a struggling clown in Gotham. He lives with his mother in a small apartment, in an especially rough part of town. He also suffers from a rare mental disorder, which causes him to laugh randomly and uncontrollably, and it is completely unrelated to how he is feeling at the time. Fortunately, Arthur has a job as a clown, in which he takes various jobs. Sometimes he is performing for kids, while other times he is spinning signs, advertising for local businesses.
His job does not pay much, but it is all he has. His life is not easy, but he goes through a rough patch (even by his standards). He runs into problems at work, he runs into problems with his medication, and he even loses faith in his idol, the host of Gotham's late night show, Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro). Arthur has always been an outcast, and he has always been overlooked by society, but this recent string of events is about to send him down a very dark path in which he will not be so easily ignored.
The Pros & Cons
Joaquin Phoenix (+10pts)
The Disorder & The Dancing (-2pts)
Murray Franklin & Gotham (+6pts)
Predictable Climax (-2pts)
Pro: Joker (+8pts)
This was a really strong character story about the iconic comic book villain, Joker. I will get into what I liked so much about Joaquin Phoenix's performance later in this review, as that deserves its own section. For now, however, I just want to talk about Joker's character arc. He started off in a bad place mentally, and as the story progressed, his mental state only became worse.
This is a story about bullying, it is a story about mental disorders, it is a story about wealth inequality, it is a story about a mass murderer, and it is a story about the relevance of comedy (regarding who has the right to determine what is and is not "funny"). Sure, this is an origin story about an iconic villain. However, this movie was filled with a ton of culturally relevant themes, that were intertwined masterfully into a compelling character story. Joker's story touches on some of these themes more than others, but it is a very culturally relevant story from start to finish. The story was as compelling as it was well-written, and was almost as if being about The Joker was just icing on the cake.
Con: Sophie (-2pts)
This character had the potential to make a real impact on Arthur's story. To Arthur, Sophie (Zazie Beetz) was one of the few sources of light in a very dark world. I liked the direction that the filmmakers were going in with this character, but they never followed through with it effectively. The filmmakers built this relationship, and gave this character plenty of focus. They then concluded her part in Arthur's story as an almost after thought, as if the filmmakers just sort of got tired of the character so wrote her out of Arthur's story. I liked the direction they went in, on paper, but I thought the filmmakers could have done a much better job of bringing it to the screen in a more impactful way.
Pro: Joaquin Phoenix (+10pts)
Joaquin Phoenix was simply outstanding in this role. Up until this point, Heath Ledger has been the best, live-action, on-screen Joker, in my opinion. Heath Ledger delivered an instantly iconic performance that would be unfair to have to be compared to, yet any actor taking on the role of Joker would inevitably get that treatment. Nonetheless, Joaquin Phoenix nailed this role.
We got to see how Arthur went from a struggling party clown, to a notorious, deranged villain. This was not your typical origin story. It tackled some heavy, culturally relevant issues, and it did so through providing a very compelling character story. Arthur Fleck is struggling emotionally, he is struggling mentally, and this is a story of his rise to power, as well as a story of Gotham's fall into darkness. This was an incredibly complicated role, and Joaquin Phoenix was impressively captivating in it. Even for Joaquin Phoenix, an actor who has delivered many strong performances, this performance was something special. The movie was a dark, dramatic tragedy, and Joaquin Phoenix sunk his extremely talented chops into it, delivering a must-see performance in the process.
Con: The Disorder & The Dancing (-2pts)
Now, I really do not know if uncontrollable laughter is a real mental disorder, but it felt oddly convenient to make this character have it, right from the start of the movie. Why not just have him be a deranged psychopath that just finds even the darkest things amusing? Why not show what life in Gotham can do to a person, by showing this disorder gradually develop and become more and more severe? All things considered, this was an extremely minor issue, but making Arthur have this disorder just felt really on-the-nose.
Then there was the interpretive dancing, which was another very minor issue. I am totally fine with the character doing this, but it seemed to get an odd amount of focus. Characters kept mentioning it, and the story kept focusing on it. It was intended to make Arthur seem more unusual, but it could have been handled a little more subtly. Instead, the filmmakers went with an on-the-nose approach once again.
Pro: Murray Franklin & Gotham (+6pts)
I liked the character of Murray Franklin, even though I thought it was really obvious where the story was going with the character. I will get into that predictability next, but Robert De Niro made me enjoy this character anyway. I liked his personality, I liked his role in Arthur Fleck's story, and I thought Robert De Niro delivered a performance that was nothing special, but effective.
I also really enjoyed how the filmmakers used Gotham in this movie. Gotham very much felt like its own character, and I really liked the connection between Arthur Fleck and Gotham. Without Gotham, Arthur Fleck would have never become The Joker. Similarly, without Arthur Fleck, Gotham would have never become the dark, crime-riddled city that we are all so familiar with. At least, that is the case for this version of Gotham. I just really liked this almost symbiotic fall into darkness that Joker shared with Gotham.
Con: Predictable Climax (-2pts)
I already touched on this, so I will keep this point brief. I liked the character of Murray Franklin, but it was really easy to see where the filmmakers were going with this character, as the film approached its climax. From the candid video, to the incredibly obvious red herring regarding Arthur's "plan", it was all leading to a climactic moment that viewers will see coming from a mile away. Fortunately, this did not hurt my enjoyment of the character, Murray Franklin, and it did not have much of an impact on my interest in Arthur's story. I just found it really obvious what the filmmakers were going to do with this character (Murray Franklin) in the climax of this story.
Grade: A- (93pts)
This was a truly great movie. It was a really strong character story about an iconic character. We got to see how a troubled man falls into darkness after he is outcasted, beaten down, and neglected by the city that he lives in. The story touches on so many culturally relevant issues, and ties them all together masterfully to form a coherent story. There was so much about this movie that I enjoyed, from the culturally relevant issues, to the very well-written character story, but Joaquin Phoenix was undeniably the best thing about this movie.
Do not let that last statement take anything away from the other things that I liked about this movie. Joaquin Phoenix was truly outstanding in this role. Sure, I had some minor issues with the movie, but they were just that, minor issues. The filmmakers had a very well-developed main character, a very talented lead actor, and a plot that tied together a ton of culturally relevant issues that made the fictional city feel so real. The movie was great, and being about the iconic Joker in the iconic Gotham was really just delicious icing on an already delicious cake.