By Mark Saldana
Rating: 3 (Out of 4 Stars)
The award for the “Feel Bad Movie of the Year” goes to Joker. Writer/director Todd Phillips and co-writer Scott Silver have taken the iconic DC Comics villain and have given him his most fully realized cinematic treatment ever. The downside of this (for some audiences) is that it is not at all an enjoyable experience. Granted, The Joker should involve its share of shocks and disturbing violence, but the filmmakers behind this movie take their character development to a level that lacks any level of wit, intelligence or mastery. That is not to say that Joker is not a powerful and disturbing take on the creation of a psychotic killer. However, given that this movie is supposed to be a singular portrait of the villain, I had hoped for some glimpse of an arch-master criminal in the making and not just another example of the horrendous results of mental illness and abuse.
Joaquin Phoenix stars as Arthur Fleck, a sad and lonely man living with his ailing mother Penny (Frances Conroy) and cannot seem to recover from his depressing situation. Fleck struggles with a neurotic mental disorder on top of his dire situation. Prone to awkward and inappropriate laughing fits, he has never been able to appropriately interact with others on a comfortable social level. Things worsen for Arthur when a violent mugging by street teens and his reactionary bad choice costs him his job as a low-rent clown. As things devolve and unravel for Arthur, the troubled man finds joy through his violent reactions to any kind of adversity he encounters.
Now, perhaps my synopsis might sound intriguing, and I feel that this movie does have its gripping and powerful moments. But, to be quite honest, it doesn’t seem right that Phoenix’s Fleck should be the blueprint for what should be Batman’s greatest foe. Fleck, for sure, does deserve much sympathy, but even as he devolves into a villain, his disturbing acts of violence lack the ingenuity, and dare I say wit, that the Joker of DC’s Comics and previous cinema (particularly The Dark Knight) have to offer. Now I do acknowledge that this is supposed to be an origin story and Fleck’s Joker hasn’t quite gotten to that level yet, but the audience never, ever gets a taste of that madness, mixed with intelligence.
To be completely fair, Todd Phillips has made a great looking movie that perfectly captures the look of films of the late 70s/early 80s era. The cinematography by Lawrence Shair looks beautiful. And I will acknowledge that Joaquin Phoenix performs outstandingly in his role. He truly is amazing as the character, but is sadly limited by the writing and the lack of vision in this movie. It is a performance which actually does deserve accolades, but doesn’t really deserve the title of DC’s Joker.
And even though I gave this film a moderately positive review, I feel that Todd Phillips’s Joker never seriously presents what makes the character an intriguing and formidable foil to Batman. I believe had he given us a glimpse of what he could accomplish as a fully realized intelligent villain, this would have been a more definitive representation of who The Joker is. It is a disturbingly haunting portrait of a violent psychopath, but one that never truly earns its title.