By Jason Delgado
The supremely talented method actor Joaquin Phoenix plays Arthur Fleck, aka the Joker, a downtrodden, mentally unhinged man, who is beaten down even more so by a cruel, 1970’s version of Gotham City. Arthur lives with his sickly, psychotic mother (played wonderfully by Frances Conroy), while barely getting by as a clown for hire. Fleck dreams of being a standup comedian, but has trouble socially interacting with people and has a condition where he laughs uncontrollably at inopportune times. Fleck reaches his breaking point after some unfortunate events, and we watch his transformation into the Joker with horror.
The Joker has been a source of controversy from its very inception. I was reminded of that when I saw a police car prominently parked outside the movie theater that I visited to watch the film, and when another local theater in Huntington Beach, California cancelled showings because of a bomb threat that was deemed credible by police. This all stems from the 2012 Aurora, Colorado movie theater shooting during a showing of the Dark Knight Rises, where a mentally unstable man shot and killed twelve people, while injuring seventy others. He had dyed his hair red, and initial reports said he called himself the Joker during the shooting. Although more recent information says that there was no connection to the fictional character because the perpetrator never said anything about the Joker and only dyed his hair red because a friend dyed their hair blue. Yet the Joker connection persists in the eye of many in the public, and in families of the victims. One such family member, Sandy Phillips, whose twenty-four year old daughter died in the shooting, called this new Joker movie “a slap in the face.” Other disturbing factors about the film are that it features some gruesome gun violence and the Joker character is socially awkward and mentally ill, much like many of the real-life shooters.
It’s tough to fault someone like Sandy Phillips for their personal emotions connected to this terrible tragedy, and the horrible memories that a movie like The Joker will inevitably bring to the surface for survivors and loved ones of victims of atrocities like the one in Aurora. At the same time, I believe that filmmakers have the freedom of expression to be able to make a movie like The Joker. There’s a great article by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the Hollywood Reporter about this very subject. Abdul-Jabbar supposits that there have long been controversial works of art, music, books, video games, and film that are tempting to blame because “they often express humanity’s worst impulses, but impulses are not actions for most of us. And for the mentally ill seeking violence, anything can set them off.”
Controversy aside, let’s get to the matter of the film itself. The Joker brings up an interesting question of art versus entertainment. I posed this question in my very first review for FoCC on the topic of the Hellboy remake. Much like Venom, Hellboy (2019) was cheesy and not a particularly “good” film, but I enjoyed it nonetheless because of the fun factor. Well The Joker is on the opposite end of that spectrum for me. It’s a well-made movie, with beautifully gritty cinematography, an excellent score, and an amazing performance by Joaquin Phoenix, but it isn’t very fun to watch.
The Joker is two hours and two minutes of awkward, unsettling darkness. I’ve read Film Threat critic Chris Gore compare this film to Fight Club, yet I have to respectfully disagree. Fight Club was dark, but it also had a fun, living life to the fullest in a twisted way, quality that I find lacking in The Joker. The character of the Joker believes that he’s doing just that, but instead of underground fist fights, he’s murdering people in cold blood. How can we root for a character like that?
Another major difference between the two movies is that Fight Club had an anarchistic message against consumerism, whereas The Joker is a descent into insanity. The Joker feigns interest in the subject of income inequality, but it seems more like an afterthought than an actual theme. The Joker is a tough film to watch because there’s nothing particularly redeemable about it, unless you root for the psychotic Fleck.
My question is, what does The Joker movie bring to the mythology of the character that we haven’t seen before? We know that the Joker is insane, and saw Heath Ledger portray that all the way to a posthumous Oscar. Joaquin Phoenix does sublime work, having lost over fifty pounds and fully committing to the role, but we already know that he is a great dramatic actor, capable of this kind of unnerving performance. Ledger did the same thing (arguably better, in my opinion) and it came out of nowhere because he was known for rom-cons, and the controversial Brokeback Mountain. The Joker almost made a bold move by adding a big twist to the Joker and Batman origin story, which I won’t ruin, but then it frustratingly took the twist back, saying “just kidding” to the audience.
The Joker is one note, all about following Fleck down the rabbit hole. Call me old-fashioned, but I prefer the balance of light versus darkness when bringing the Dark Knight into the equation. This film is an obvious homage to Taxi Driver, with Travis Bickle himself, Robert De Niro playing a noteworthy role, as late night talk show host Murray Franklin. De Niro was the most entertaining part of the whole movie for me as the carefree host, because he seemed like the only one actually having fun.
Writer/director Todd Phillips (the Hangover) has the right to make all of the dark choices he wants; I just didn’t find it entertaining. At the time of this writing, The Joker has an audience score of 91%, and a critic Tomatometer score of 69% on Rotten Tomatoes. It seems like audiences are “down with the sickness” as the band Disturbed would say. Good for those who found light at the end of the tunnel, because I didn’t.
I give The Joker two hot sauce packets out of five. The Joker says that “comedy is subjective” in the film. The Joker was full of twisted laughs (to himself), I just found the jokes (and the movie), despite the astounding craftsmanship by Phoenix, to be weak sauce.