Let’s just get it out of the way now – The character of Batman’s nemesis ‘The Joker’ is iconic, made all the more so by some of the impressive talent that’s portrayed him over the years, going back to Jack Nicholson’s energetic turn back in ’89 (Cesar Romero has no part of this discussion), carried through by Heath Ledger’s unlikely-but-amazing take on the Clown Prince of Crime in Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008). On the low end, Ledger’s legendary portrayal was followed by Jared Leto’s unfortunate ‘homie’ version of ‘Joker’, which pretty much sucked, and was not Leto’s fault. The dude is a talented guy and he got handed a VERY ‘David Ayer’ garbage version on the page, so he could only do so much. After Suicide Squad (2016) was hit with a luke-warm reception, critically speaking, with ‘Joker’ standing out as a glaring issue, amid the mess that flick is, people waited to see who and what the next Joker-related project might be. But then intriguing word of a ‘stand-alone’ Joker origin story that was in the works reached me, one of those stories where the character’s defining nemesis is nowhere to be seen (think Venom). Then came the kicker – the amazingly talented Joaquin Phoenix (U-Turn) was going to step into this ballsy, R-rated experiment…and my expectations rose. I’ve liked Phoenix going all the way back to his days as a child actor (going by the name ‘Leaf’) in movies like Space Camp (1986) and Parenthood (1989) and have been repeatedly impressed by his commitment to the craft of acting. He would definitely be making his late brother River Phoenix (Sneakers) proud. I also heard that the flick was also going to lean on a heavy ‘70’s feel, with comparisons to Scorsese’s gritty entries from the period Taxi Driver (1976) and The King of Comedy (1982) being bandied about…I was also ok with this idea. We then got a sparse but effective marketing campaign…and I was sold.
So on a rainy Sunday afternoon, my fiancé and I piled into my new/used car, and we bombed over to the cinema to see if Joker could live up to the growing hype (the Oscar’s have been mentioned…not that that means a fucking thing).
Joker takes place in the gritty inner city of 1981’s Gotham City where we meet a meek, tortured soul named ‘Arthur Fleck’ (Joaquin Phoenix), a mentally unstable man who ekes out an existence for himself and his live-in mother as a clown-for-hire, while yearning to take to the stage as a stand-up comedian. Adding to the abuse he takes, he’s also afflicted with a psychological disorder that results in painful, uncontrollable laughter at inopportune times. He’s pushed till he can’t take it any more and violently lashes out, resulting in an act of gruesome violence that becomes a city-wide symbol for the growing discontent, which grows as he begins to discover what he’s capable of amid the chaos in the streets, and in his mind.
This movie is solid! My Better Half and I were both impressed with what we’d just seen, and I was a happy camper. I got from Joker pretty much exactly what I expected and hoped for. Right off the bat (teehee!), I have to say that this is almost 100% Joaquin Phoenix’s flick. He OWNS the role and absolutely makes it his own thing that sets him up impressively among the past portrayals of Batman’s classic arch enemy. And mad props have to also be given to director Todd Phillips (Old School), who surprised the hell out of me with this most decidedly NOT funny flick, as all I know him from is borderline tripe like The Hangover series. But I think he mostly knocked it out of the park here, especially from a technical and production design stand-point. Joker looks fantastic and they did a terrific job creating the gritty, mean streets of 1970’s Gotham and giving them that urban decay look that is easy to associate with North America from that time. It didn’t feel like people playing ‘make believe’.
It does need to be said however, that anyone going into this expecting some crazy Batman action scene shit is in for a rude shock, as this film is most certainly a ‘slow burn’, operating under a patient narrative that ramps up organically. It’s an exploration of one man’s lethal descent into madness, on a close and personal level, as the world around him also threatens to go crazy. That being said, in the few scenes in which violence does play a role, it is fierce and ugly, a couple times legitimately shocking. It’s these scenes that certainly tipped the scales of the rating into hard R territory and I was elated that Warner Bros had taken the chance to go for ‘edgier’ fare, aimed at a more mature audience. What we ended up with was a disturbing art-house thriller that fleshed out an iconic character in an intriguing way, while presenting just one of probably many Joker origin stories. There is a certain fluidity to ‘The Joker’s back story, so this is a no harm, no foul situation. It’s already been stated by Phillips that Joker was never meant to tie into DC’s newest attempts with the Batman character, which I respect. This is just its own thing, no need for yet another money-hungry, creatively-bankrupt comic book film franchise gumming up the auditoriums. In my opinion, they pulled it off nicely and now it can stand on its own. Coming back to Phoenix, the man is amazing as this strangely complex and damaged character, and pulls off ‘riding the line’ when it came to manipulating our sympathies and our loathing for ‘Arthur’ as the narrative unspooled. His intriguing performance was enhanced, again, by the production design and camera work and editing. The music score was also effective and wove seamlessly among the various period-appropriate songs from the era. A round of applause for all involved!
Negatives – having only seen Joker once (as of this writing), nothing comes to mind as bad. Perhaps with subsequent viewings, flaws will emerge, but as it currently stands, I have no complaints about Joker.
All in all, this movie is a success, in my humble opinion. I really appreciated many of the choices that went into crafting this ballsy little experiment of a comic book adaptation. The cast was great, especially Phoenix (but also Robert De Niro, Frances Conroy, Zazie Beetz and Shea Whigham, among others), the cinematography was gorgeous, the production design was gritty and ‘lived in’, the music was solid and the story was intriguing. It comes with an R-rating that feels deserved but not gratuitous. There isn’t much violence, but what’s there is tough to stomach and its meant to be ugly and taken seriously. The Joker character is premised on murder and chaos and we, the audience, are served some moments that are very true to that. Obviously, I’m recommending Joker, not just to comic book fans but also to anyone interested in a dark, intriguing character study that actually relies on ‘character’ as it takes its time to tell it’s tension-laden story. I sincerely think Joker is worth the trip to the theatre. However, if you miss it on The Big Screen, be sure to put it on a Must See list when it hits the home market.