There are many movies that are worth seeing, but there are a lot of stinkers as well. My goal here is to weed out the good from the bad.
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 disconnected and independent from how he is feeling. Arthur works as a party clown, and he takes various jobs. Sometimes he is performing for kids, while other times he is spinning signs, advertising for local businesses.
The job does not pay much, but it is all he has. His life is not easy, and now he is going through an especially 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 forgotten and 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
|The Pros||The 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, the 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, I just want to talk about the Joker's character arc. He started off in a bad place mentally, and as the story progressed, his mental state only became worse.
This was a story about bullying, it was a story about mental disorders, it was a story about wealth inequality, it was a story about a mass murderer, and it was a story about the relevance of comedy—regarding who has the right to determine what is and is not "funny". Sure, this was an origin story about an iconic Batman villain, but this movie was filled with a ton of culturally relevant themes that were intertwined masterfully into a compelling character story. Joker's story touched on some of these themes more than others, but it was a very culturally relevant story from start to finish. The story was as compelling as it was well-written, and it 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 an otherwise very dark world. I liked the direction the filmmakers seemed to be going in with this character, but they never really followed through with it. The filmmakers built this relationship, and they gave this character plenty of focus. Then they wrapped up her part in Arthur's story suddenly and almost as an after thought, as if the filmmakers got tired of the character so just 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 and deranged villain. This was not your typical origin story. It tackled some heavy, culturally relevant issues, and it did so through a compelling character story. Arthur Fleck was struggling emotionally, he was struggling mentally, and this was a story of his rise to power, as well as a story of Gotham's fall into darkness. This was a complicated role, and Joaquin Phoenix was truly 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 talented chops into it, and the result was a must-see performance.
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 at the start of this story? Why not just have him be a deranged psychopath that 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 was fine with the character doing this to some extent, 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 for this as well, and it did not work for me.
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, and I liked his role in Arthur Fleck's story. Then there was Robert De Niro’s performance, which was nothing special, but it was still 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 in this version of Gotham. I really liked this almost symbiotic fall into darkness that the Joker shared with Gotham, as this was never greatly focused on, but their parallel fall into darkness added an interesting layer to this story.
Con: Predictable Climax (-2pts)
I liked the character of Murray Franklin, but it was really easy to see where the filmmakers were going with this character, as the story 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 either. I just found it really obvious where the filmmakers were going to take this story in its climax.
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.