Film review: ‘JOKER’ by Nick Gardener from ‘Built For Speed’

Joker is possibly the most hyped film of the year. Its arrival has been preceded by salivating reviews and Homeric tales of standing ovations at film festivals. As often happens with massively hyped films, they don’t live up to expectations. This is the case here but that doesn’t mean it’s a poor film, in fact, it has some terrific moments but it doesn’t entirely work. It’s not just hype, however, but Deja vu that will dull its impact. This film takes that over-exposed genre, the super hero/villain origin story and mixes it with most of the plot of Scorsese’s King of Comedy, a touch of Taxi Driver and a huge helping of that cinematic sub-genre the ‘Joaquin Phoenix tortured wretch’ film.

Phoenix plays the titular character although he’s known for most of the film by his regular name, Arthur Fleck. A struggling stand-up comedian, he fantasises about being discovered by his hero, talk show comedian Murray Franklin (Robert de Niro) but winds up having to work for pittance as a clown. Caring for his ageing and ailing mother in a dingy apartment, his life is a case of textbook misery. It also becomes apparent that Arthur suffers from a delusional disorder that sees his behaviour become increasingly erratic and eventually destructive as he learns the truth of his background and is subjected to violent indignities by the people of Gotham City. As he lashes out against the world and descends into criminality his harlequin visage becomes a bizarre symbol of violent street rebellion in Gotham.

Emoting, gurning and contorting his body like Richard III or Gollum, Phoenix seems hellbent on wringing every drop of anguish from the character. His commitment to the role is undeniable but his performance at times seems forced like an Oscar-bait scenery-chewer. It’s reminiscent of but not as compelling as his turn in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master. Still, he injects genuine menace and ferocity into a few very confronting and violent scenes.

A debate has already erupted about whose Joker was better, Phoenix’s or Heath Ledger’s. It’s a dubious comparison as they played the character in different ways at different stages of their criminal ascent (Ledger as a confident, mocking and powerful villain; Phoenix as a pathetic creature stumbling into infamy) and they were in aesthetically and tonally different films. Taking all of that into account, for this reviewer, Heath Ledger was superior as he effortlessly made the Joker an utterly demonic figure while Phoenix is forced to deliver method acting gymnastics.

Also, we have to ask what purpose is Phoenix’s florid performance serving? Is it making a profound statement on anything? He is, in some ways, a symbol of social disaffection and even social breakdown. It also offers at least some commentary about the effects of cuts to social services (in this case, Arthur’s psychiatric treatment) and what happens when the less fortunate are mocked by society. Still, the script by director Todd Phillips and Scott Silver doesn’t sufficiently develop these ideas into a coherent commentary about the disadvantaged. Looming over everything in this film is the fact that it’s primarily just another origin story for a campy comic book villain. There’s also the unsettling fact that this film appears to equate mental illness with violent criminality. It’s certainly not the first film to do this and we can allow the fantasy world of the superhero/ villain drama some latitude and poetic licence but depicting those with mental health issues as perverse criminals is still very uncomfortable.

In addition, while Joker contains some confronting and brutally convincing violence it still, at times, feels contrived and obvious as in its ‘oh so ironic’ juxtapositions of iconic old songs like That’s Life with Fleck’s embittered outbursts.

It’s important to note that, while there is a reference to a young Bruce Wayne, this film sits outside the current DC Batman etc franchise. This is a blessing as Joker is almost nothing like those grey, murky, CGI-drenched snore-fests. Director Todd Phillips and cinematographer Lawrence Sher (who, surprisingly, lensed stinkers The Dukes of Hazzard and Godzilla King of Monsters) have created a remarkable looking film which is both glittering and gritty in its depiction of a chaotic Gotham city in the depths of a recession, garbage strike and crime wave. The film certainly impresses on a technical level.

Joker isn’t quite the epochal event that pre-release hype may have suggested nor is it quite as important as it pretends to be. Still, its attempt to forge a new direction with a very overworked superhero/ villain genre is refreshing and in those moments where it fits all the pieces together it fleetingly recalls searing dramas like Requiem for a Dream.

 Nick’s rating: ***1/2

Genre: Drama/ thriller/ super villain.

Classification: MA15+.

Director(s): Todd Phillips.

Release date: 3rd Oct 2019.

Running time: 122 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast.


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