Joker (2019)

Directed by Todd Phillips

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Joker seems to be split among critics and fans.  Critics are lukewarm at best, pointing out some of the unfair representations of mental illness and the way the film borrows a whole heck of a lot from Taxi Driver and King of Comedy (and maybe Nightcrawler too), but fans just seem to love it because, I’m guessing, it’s unlike any other superhero movie they’ve seen.

And that split is fascinating.  Critics, by and large, are the ones who have seen edgy, dark, compelling character-driven movies before so the ‘risks’ Joker takes are nothing new to them.  But to an audience used to oversized, colorful, computer-generated movies about likable people in spandex this must surely feel like a breath of fresh air.

It’s the origin story of the Joker, of course, and that’s a hard story to tell unless you lean into things that are both ugly and simplistic.  He suffers from various forms of mental illness, and the implication, should you read into it, is that it’s this inner struggle that turns him into a madman.  It’s broad and lacks nuance, and it’s hard to know how to feel about that.  I fall somewhere in the middle, between people who chide the movie’s simplistic representation of mental illness and the people who say ‘it’s just a movie.’

When the film opens Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) has a condition in which he laughs uncontrollably when he’s uncomfortable, and he works as a clown advertising department store sales.  So he’s well on his way already.  Arthur also lives with his elderly mother and aims to become a stand up comedian when he gets the courage to finally go up on stage.

He’s already a disturbed character, but the boat is rocked when he’s jumped by a group of teenagers who brutally assault him for no apparent reason.  Then he will further be tormented by one particular coworker and people on the subway who are offended by his uncontrollable laughter.  This abuse, plus a handgun, turns him into the Joker.

The film really does steal a lot from Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, two classic Scorsese films.  And I think this goes beyond borrowing or homage.  It literally takes plot points from those films, with Arthur’s obsession with a late night variety show host played by Robert De Niro who played the young, obsessed characters in both of those previous films.

It works on its own, but there’s something just kind of off about this, and I have a hard time explaining why.  Plenty of recent superhero movies have found their lane by picking a certain genre to draw from rather than just another loud, bombastic superhero ensemble.  Captain America: Winter Soldier, for example, pulls from the 70s spy thrillers like Three Days of the Condor or maybe The Day of the Jackal and Ant-Man is a heist film and (though I haven’t seen it) I believe Suicide Squad is more or less The Dirty Dozen.

And it certainly makes for a compelling film putting aside concerns about how the text handles real issues.  The story is entertaining, the character is at times riveting, and everything onscreen just looks beautiful.  It’s a well-made film that many people will get a kick out of.

And yet it just all feels so murky.  Part of my frustration is that movies like this don’t get made anymore unless (as many people have already pointed out) it’s a superhero film.  Joker is just another nice character drama, and it shouldn’t be so noteworthy.  There are so many good movies out there, so many better movies, that aren’t seen just because they don’t have the same marketing budget and name recognition as something like DC and the Joker.

The film is dark and edgy, but it often just feels edgy to be edgy, like the film doesn’t really know what it’s saying, just that the blood splatter or the juxtaposition of a laughing man committing murder looks and sounds cool.  There are so many moments too in which Fleck just dances for some reason and is filmed in slow motion with a strong piece of music that works on its own, as in a music video, but makes no sense within the story.

And the story is where the movie falters a little.  Beyond taking from other movies, there are a few too many unjustified moments and decisions, as well as inexplicable loopholes wherein you anticipate something that should happen but it just never does.  Characters don’t always act in a believable way, and it feels like they are just all working in service of the film’s direction, to shepherd Fleck to becoming the Joker.

So it’s an entertaining film that I think is both underrated by critics and overrated by fans, is what I’m saying.  Or maybe I’m just trying a little too hard to be a contrarian, who knows.

Up Next: Klute (1971), Low Tide (2019), Julieta (2016)

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