Review: Phoenix Allows ‘Joker’ To Burn Bright Despite a Lack of Innovation

When the Clown Prince of Gotham comes to the big screen, moviegoing audiences pay attention. Back in 1989, Jack Nicholson introduced audiences to a new kind of Joker, one that was more menacing and comical than the Cesar Romero hilarity of the television show. Mark Hamill‘s evolution of the character throughout Batman: The Animated Series and Batman: The Mask of the Phantasm gave a generation the ability to grow up on a violent and electrifying villain. Yet Heath Ledger‘s anarchic take on the character became an instant icon of cinema. It’s impossible to separate the danger and death that lingers over the performance. Even the Suicide Squad from David Ayer drew massive crowds, in part due to misplaced excitement for Jarred Leto.

This past weekend, the Todd Phillips directed Joker made waves throughout popular culture. Hot off winning the Golden Lion at the Venice International Film Festival, as well as an impressive showing at the Toronto International Film Festival, expectations were high. Of course, backlash kicked into full gear. With many fearing an actual act of domestic terrorism could accompany the film’s release, Joker quickly became the most controversial film to hit theaters in more than a decade.

Sadly, the film does not live up to the lofty discourse that circulated last week. Joker ultimately plays as Scorsese karaoke, drawing heavily from both Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy. You can even make the argument Joker is a spiritual sequel to each of those films. The character study thrives thanks to the committed performance from Joaquin Phoenix. Yet the rest of the film struggles to find its footing. A seemingly well-intentioned depiction of mental illness gets bogged down by inarticulate storytelling and concepts you might find in a psychology 101 class. While Joker‘s ambition makes it interesting, it never follows through on the threads that deliver the most impactful messages.

That’s not to say that Joker is a bad movie. In fact, part of what makes Phillip’s film so infuriating might be the way it flirts with greatness. Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) lives out his life in the slums of Gotham City. Set before an election within the city, a crime wave sweeps the streets and places Fleck in a position to become a victim. He suffers from mental illness and uncontrollable bursts of laughter when uncomfortable. He dreams of performing standup but becomes the victim of muggings and beatings while at work. His mother Penny Fleck (Francis Conroy) believes they will find their way out of the slums with the help of Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen). After Arthur becomes the victim of another senseless beating, he turns on his assailants. As Arthur struggles with his own journey of self-discovery and violence, Gotham City begins to rupture at the seams.

Unfortunately for Joker, a film cannot be removed from the context in which it enters the world. I do not count myself as someone who fears Joker will incite violence. Yet it is at war with itself. Despite the way the filmmakers and cast talk about Joker, the ideas that circulate throughout the film suggest it wants to comment on the modern state of the world. The depictions of mental illness are far from revolutionary, even falling into cliche at times. Joker also undermines its arguments by introducing too many aspects of mental illness. To quote one of my wise mentors, when you try to say everything, you often say nothing.

The ambiguity becomes problematic as it strengthens the argument that only the mentally ill will engage in acts of violence. In that regard, the movie feeds into right-wing talking points that have surrounded mass shootings in recent months. Simultaneously, Joker bemoans the death of public funding for mental health and weaves in Occupy Wall Street rhetoric. The unfocused nature of these issues does not provide us with a grey area. Nuance disappears, and instead Joker just depicts political extremes. The muddled ideas present throughout the story leaves us without answers to the questions Joker raises and ultimately leaves the movie without convictions.

The argument for the greatness within this film has to begin and end with Joaquin Phoenix. Inarguably one of the greatest actors of his generation, Phoenix showcases his chameleonic abilities as he disappears behind the role. With every breath, you can tell that Phoenix has dialed into something special. The sheer use of physicality and negative space make this a special performance, to say nothing of the unwritten aspects of the character that Phoenix displays through his non-verbals. Thanks to the incredible actors who have taken on this role, it is impossible to say this is the best performance of the character, and Phoenix has depicted more interesting characters. Yet Phoenix throws down the gauntlet, and will surely challenge for year-end awards.

Turning the film so wholly over to Phoenix’s character creates its own problems. He can be enthralling to watch on screen, but his journey creates a bleak and negative outlook on the world around him. The darkness that he takes through feels oppressive at times and shockingly the lack of violence for stretches of the film causes the momentum to falter at times. Phoenix always resets the stage, but even at two hours, the bleak world can feel too heavy. Simultaneously, a talented cast that includes Robert De NiroZazie BeetzBrian Tyree Henry , and Frances Conroy feels underutilized. Phoenix sucks the oxygen out of the room, and without those characters, the stakes of Joker are severely reduced.

At the same time, the movie wants to be a character study, but cannot help but intangle itself within the DC Universe. Rather than deliver on the standalone film that has been promised, it feels like Joker needs to prove it’s comic book background. Whether this came from studio notes or was always the plan, the choice to make the Wayne family loom large over this film comes off as too convenient. I’d rather spend time with the characters we’ve never met before than see young Bruce Wayne for the 1000th time.

Even as a piece of connected-universe building, Joker becomes more interested in throwing things into the atmosphere without having the courage to actually ask the question. Some of the questions about Arthur’s background could be far more intriguing if the film leaned into them. Instead, it backtracks on almost all of these ideas, settling for traditional comic book lore. Yet the ideas could have far-reaching, even brilliant consequences on DC Universe if given the opportunity.

Despite these issues, Joker will certainly feel entertaining for many. Phoenix’s take on the character delivers a Joker that truly feels unique. He is not simply unpredictable for the sake of anarchy. Instead, you can tell this Joker does not have a plan for anything in his life as he wildly shifts his motivations from one scene to the next. In fact, you can argue that Phoenix’s Joker is incapable of building these plans. The Gotham City of this film plays a massive role as a character in the film. Only Burton’s Gotham feels as integral to the story being told. The craft team behind bringing the dirty world of New York and turning it into a tactile Gotham deserves every bit praise they receive. The score from Hildur Guðnadóttir should become an iconic work. When this film verges into outbursts, Guðnadóttir guides you to emotional truths about the moments. It’s tough to imagine many scores in 2019 will be as integral to the success of a film.

The fact that I wrote close to 1400 words on Joker makes me a little frustrated. To be honest, for a film that thinks it is so edgy, Joker comes off as rather tame. For a movie that could incite violence, there’s not that much in the film. It does not want to be identified as a comic book movie, but boy does it go out of the way to bring the Waynes into the story. The movie feels like it is constantly fighting with itself, but will certainly still appeal to those who miss Dark Knight trilogy. Joker should feel more substantial. Unfortunately, a lack of focus almost wastes an incredible performance. Sadly Joker squanders a place in the superhero pantheon and instead settles for simply being intriguing. That might be the greatest letdown of all.

GRADE: (½)

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