a critiQal film review Joker (2019)

Plot: Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) is a man struggling to find his way in Gotham’s fractured society. A clown-for-hire by day, he aspires to be a stand-up comic at night…but finds the joke always seems to be on him. Caught in a cyclical existence between apathy and cruelty, Arthur makes one bad decision that brings about a chain reaction of escalating events in this gritty character study.

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  • ...Joaquin Phoenix delivers a standout performance in a film that manages to turn a comic book movie into high art.

I had been wanting to see Joker for some time now. After all the hoopla about Joaquin Phoenix’s impressive performance, in a film that delves into a new darker and more deranged (yet more down-to-earth) origin story of the maniacal villain, this one definitely seemed like it was going to be one to watch.

But, would Joker be as good as I’d heard? Or would Joaquin Phoenix – and the DC Universe – let me down again?

When it was first announced that Joaquin Phoenix was going to be portraying the iconic Joker, all I could do was groan. After his sniveling performance as a whiny prince (or king, or whatever) in the overrated Gladiator, I’ve tended to stay away from anything he’s in. Apparently, that made me miss him turn in a brilliant performance in Walk the Line, but honestly that didn’t seem like much of a sacrifice to me.

In Joker, thankfully, he delivers as promised. While his physical appearance may remind viewers of Christian Bale’s dramatic weight loss for The Machinist, it is his ability to delve into the deranged mind of Joker (aka Arthur Fleck) that really keeps the viewer tuned in. From the start, the viewer is aware there is something just not right about Arthur Fleck. As the film goes on, the viewer is giving as many clues about Fleck’s psyche by Phoenix’s standout performance as they are by the story line itself. Sympathize with him or not – it doesn’t really seem to matter. Phoenix’s performance is bound to draw the viewer in regardless of how they feel about the character he’s portraying. It’s just too engaging to pull away from.

The rest of the cast, honestly, are just blips in Joker, given little screen time to evolve as characters at all. This, sadly, leaves new talent like Zazie Beetz (Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)) – and old hands like Robert De Niro (Mean Streets (1973)) – very little to do in the film. Instead, they are just set pieces in Fleck’s life, giving him something to react off of and little else.

When a viewer think comic book movies, there is an expectation of what’s to come. Flashy special effects. Bigger than life heroes and villains. Crazy stunts. Joker doesn’t provide any of that. Instead, it becomes comic book movie as art. There is an air of artistry in every sequence (many borrowed from other films), rather than the popcorn-munching special effects blockbusters viewers are used to. While it may not be as deep as it thinks it is, that feeling of watching art in motion never goes away, and the viewer is nearly lost in the beauty of it all.

Okay, so as an origin story, Joker is a lot more nitty-gritty than viewers have seen in the past. Obviously deranged from the very start, the film shows Fleck’s slow transformation into the iconic villain through the use of basically every excuse in the book, finally coming to a climactic conclusion that seems both inevitable and fitting (in the world of the film at least). There is an inescapability to Fleck’s fate, and the film never wavers from the rather straight road it has set for itself.

However, those who think the film is trying to justify why other real-life killers and mass murderers do the things they do (one of the main complaints others have had about this film), that seems a bit off-base. After all, the film never really dives deep enough into each of the issues to really dissect them, instead piling them on until Fleck finally goes completely off the deep end.

In a society that treats him so badly (this includes literally everyone he meets), there is a sense in the film that this isn’t real-life. Instead, it’s a twisted version of real life, which actually aides the movie. One is never quite sure if things are as bad as they are shown, or if Fleck’s delusions have infected the film, so the viewer is seeing things as he is, rather than how they actually are.

While the film isn’t perfect, that underlying sense of comic book movie as art coupled with Joaquin Phoenix’s standout performance definitely makes for a must-see film in Joker. When this was first announced, who could have guessed that one film would make Todd Phillips (The Hangover (2009)) be seen as a dramatic director; see Joaquin Phoenix deliver an Oscar-worthy performance AND deliver a DC comics origin story that would be the talk of the town -even without all the flashy special effects and larger than life characters seen in Wonder Woman (2017). Kudos, Joker. You managed to do all three with style.

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