We heard so much about this one! First, there were those amazing screentests of Joaquin Phoenix with clown makeup. Then, there was that first awesome teaser trailer unveiling the Gotham City of the 1970s and the actor slowly portraying the iconic character. Finally, there was the Venice Golden Lion and the media buzz after TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival) surrounding the awesomeness of said movie. So, the question remains for all of us viewers: is Joker, the latest movie by Todd Philipps (the guy who brought us The Hangover trilogy), really that good? Without spoiling the surprise just yet, I would say very good, maybe not a masterpiece. In its own distinctive way, this movie is quite unique for a story based on a supervillain. Of course, there is Phoenix’s performance, which is right up there next to Heath Ledger’s, but also for the overall look and feel of the movie, close to what great 1970s filmmakers envisioned once upon a time. Think of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, Joker is a basically a great homage to that psychological thriller genre of the 70s and 80s. For a journey into madness, this is a cool and beautiful one for sure. I had the chance to see the movie in 70mm, which makes the colours and the grain of the reel stand out so much. I personally recommend it if your local cinema offers it.
The director mentioned it multiple times prior to the release, this is an origin story for Batman’s greatest enemy, so do not expect to watch a superhero flick like we did so many times. Yes, some narrative elements do come from comic book materials, but a lot of the script doesn’t. Philipps merged his own creative vision with the known character created by Bob Kane and DC Comics to give the Joker the backstory of a mentally-ill individual who was cast out of society. Without further do, “send in the clowns”, as singer Judy Collins once said. Considering the big hype for It: Chapter Two, this is really a Fall for clowns.
Picture the same Gotham City we know from the movies and the DC comics, but in the era of the 1970s or 1980s. This is the time when Bruce Wayne is just a kid and his parents were still alive and well. The backstory of the great villain takes the shape of a man named Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix, physically changed and his greatest role since Gladiator by far), an almost abnormally thin and weird-looking individual. Living with his mentally and physically ill mother (Frances Conroy) in a morbid apartment building downtown, Arthur tries to succeed as much as he can as a clown for hire, while also trying his luck as a stand-up comedian. Being pretty bad at both, life just seems to offer Arthur nothing put pain and misery. As he is a pretty awkward individual, most people ignore him or even worse…beat him up and ridicule him. After losing his job, something terribly wrong happens and his clown figure becomes famous and much talked about, even earning him an appearance on his favourite comedy late-night show hosted by Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro in Johnny Carson mode). This will give rise to a wave of brutal strikes in the city against the rich and powerful, as it will also make way for the creation of the greatest comic book villain of all time: the Joker.
Most people who talked about Joker tried to measure Phoenix’s role with Heath Ledger’s in The Dark Knight (2008), which they shouldn’t do. First of all, both interpretations of the character are entirely different, but this movie stands alone and so is this Joker. For one, this is many years before the days of Batman and must be viewed as a journey into the human psyche. What is truly mesmerizing about Todd Philips’ movie is the way it is so sadly human. Both Joaquin’s interpretation and Philips’ vision in representing the person who became the Joker were built on the same context: the villain was a normal man once. Interestingly enough, this movie associates some of Joker’s most abnormal and psychedelic killer tendencies to a mental condition, which makes perfect sense as we think of it. My favourite element is that Arthur has a severe physical condition that triggers an uncontrolled laugh so hard without context or purpose, making people around him uncomfortable. This actually works really well, considering the villain’s habit to laugh and make jokes at absolutely everything. We also learn that Arthur was beaten and severely injured as a child, which can be the cause of his awkward, almost autistic, behaviour.
On the side of the other characters, I really love how they used Thomas Wayne (Bruce’s father) and his impact on the Fleck family. Interestingly enough…we love to hate him, which is ironic considering we follow the steps of a bad guy. Same thing for his mother, who seems harmless with her few lines, but who be more manipulative of her son than we think…
For the fans of the universe of Batman, I strongly recommend reading the 1988 comic or watch the 2016 animated adaptation of The Killing Joke, which explores the origins of the villain. Some of the narrative material from the 2019 movie is inspired from this comic, without being a complete adaptation, notably the fact that the young Joker was a failed comedian before murdering innocents.
Apart from the development of the character, which is truly disturbing and mind-blowing, the movie is well-shot and offers us nice colour pallets and cinematography, a true hommage of the bright colours of New York City in films like Taxi Driver. As Gotham City is known to be a city infested with crime and poverty, this movie shows us that brutal reality extremely well. As Zack Snyder’s Watchmen illustrated a fictive polluted, damaged and politically corrupted New York City of the 1980s, Joker also bathes into the worst or urban living. Finally, if the DC universe has now a taste for stand-alone movies less focused on action and more on character development, let’s just say I’m all for it! It’s no secret that Warners Bros and DC had some difficulties offering superhero movies as successful as Marvel’s (ex: Justice League, Man of Steel, etc.), so I guess a change of genre could be an interesting solution to keep up with Marvel’s next phase.
Quite frankly, the movie is almost perfect, but it’s clear that Todd Philips was very much inspired by Martin Scorsese in directing this film, and it shows too much. There are some scenes in Joker that are almost a copy/paste of Scorsese’s classics…not that it’s wrong, it just shows a tiny lack of originality. I find the line blurry between a supervillain drama and an art-house for this one, which will bug a few fans.
The buzz is real and he deserves it: Joaquin Phoenix needs at least an Oscar nomination for his interpretation of the Joker; his acting is deep and troubled like we like it in masterpieces.
One last thing…some people accuse this movie of being prone to violence and maybe pity Joker a few times, but if the audience is smart, they know that this is an example of what insanity shouldn’t lead to. Nothing more!
My final grade: 8.5/10