Joker (2019) - Review

To say that those who made 'Joker' had the best of intentions feels like a somewhat disingenuous statement given exactly who made this film. Its director Todd Phillips previously directed such classic comedies as 'The Hangover' trilogies and 'Due Date', and when people stopped laughing at his films, he decided to go for an Oscar and make a serious awards-bait comic book superhero spin-off film. His ambitions for awards glory led him to attain Joaquin Phoenix, renowned for his interests in art-house cinema and lack thereof in mainstream, as well as getting Martin Scorsese's name in the credits - no doubt as a means of silencing the claims that 'Joker' is trying to be like Scorsese's own filmography (see 'Taxi Driver', 'The King of Comedy', etc.). Phoenix wants to take the Oscar-worthy role of the Joker of course - Heath Ledger posthumously received a Best Supporting Actor award for his role as the clown prince of crime in 'The Dark Knight' - whilst everyone else seems to be there for the money.

Its 1981 and a troubled Arthur Fleck limps his way through his lonely, tragic life in a Gotham City beset with issues. Billionaire Thomas Wayne endeavours to become Mayor and save the city from its crime-ridden roots and overflowing garbage (there's more bin bags in this film than ties to any Batman mythology), but both Arthur and the rest of the city know that Wayne has no interest in them. As Arthur begins to lose his grip on the world - even more so than before - he turns his wannabe-comedian interests into something considerably more sinister...

'Joker' is a film with a lot on its mind and not a lot to actually say. The film dabbles with themes of class, oppression, mental illness...but rarely does the film really take the time out to focus on these. Oftentimes the film feels like its been put together by a director who doesn't actually like these kinds of thoughtful character studies. Scenes often feel too short, or underdeveloped. Arthur's conversations with his psychiatrist don't go anywhere, neither does his blossoming romance with his neighbour (Zazie Beetz), or even the conflicts that arise between him and his mother Penny. Arthur longs to be a comedian like his idol (played by Robert Di Niro, on top form as a typical American talk-show host), but his material simply isn't funny.

When Arthur does begin to tumble down the rabbit-hole, the film's issues become apparent. Arthur kills a man for the first time in cold blood and yet the film doesn't even take a second to let this sink in. Arthur doesn't react, he just keeps going in a way that seems a little odd for a film so routed in reality. The main character's turn from endearing loser to psychotic murderer is just too sudden. Even when he finally puts the make-up on and becomes Joker, the film doesn't really take a moment to signify this properly. Sure, Joaquin Phoenix does a strange dance on some very cinematic-looking steps, but the licensed music doesn't really give the moment any gravitas. Despite what the trailers tease, the Joker himself barely appears in the film. In fact, I'd argue that he doesn't at all.

Despite references to Arkham, Gotham City itself and the Wayne family (including a cameo from a character whom I can only assume is Alfred Pennyworth), 'Joker' seems embarrassed of its comic book roots. Arthur Fleck never really becomes the Joker, he just puts some make-up on and lectures at the citizens of Gotham about how rubbish life is. Smashing. Does he actually do any Joker stuff? No. There's no inventive murders, no fun gimmicks, just a sad man sitting in a suit with some face-paint on, which despite what the title of the film would tell me, isn't what the Joker is about. The Joker is a random, ambiguous character who just wants to have a laugh, but Arthur Fleck is a troubled man who dumps the responsibility of all his problems on other people. When the audience in my screening clapped at the end, I'm not honestly sure what they were clapping. Were they supporting Arthur Fleck's turn into psychotic "f- the society" mentality, or applauding a filmmaker for making a poor imitation of a Martin Scorsese film and passing it off as the origin story of Batman's greatest foe? Oh yes, and before you ask - the ending is exactly what you think its going to be, they couldn't even come up with a twist.

The haunting score and luscious cinematography might have you believe that 'Joker' is a prestige picture, but it's actually pretty hollow once you remove the looming shadow of 'Taxi Driver'. The film doesn't give Arthur Fleck an antagonist to fight, nor does it manage to successfully justify his turn from everyday man to psychotic clown. "I had a bad day" sighs Arthur in one scene, but somehow the film never manages to make this "bad day" feel all that bad. Arthur's turn isn't sympathetic but instead feels like a cry out from someone who just needed to reach out and find a life for himself. Even when the film tries to gain more sympathy for Arthur, it spirals off into another direction, making Arthur more unsettling, more disturbed.

The film has no idea how to handle its few twists, and when all is said and done, it was exactly what I thought it'd be when it was first announced a few years ago. 'Joker' is an empty film, filled with potential for so much greatness, and not interested in any of it. There's no interesting "what if..." scenarios explored by the film, no real creativity behind the story. If the film appeals to a wider audience, it's because of its inspirations, its main cast or the craftsmanship on display. The story itself is just empty, and the ending so underwhelming that regardless of the film's positive elements, I just felt incredibly disappointed. I wanted to see 'Joker' to see what direction Phillips and Phoenix could take with the character, but having seen it now...I don't really know what I was expecting. There's nothing of note here. If 'Joker' is rewarded with Oscar attention in a few months' time, it was for pretending it was something simultaneously more and less than it actually was.


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