“Joker” is an original origin story for Batman’s archenemy and stars Joaquin Phoenix in the titular role. Todd Phillips directs and co-writes, while Zazie Beetz and Robert De Niro also star.
I am a big Batman fanboy, so I grew up with the Joker and have been treated to some great ones over the years, namely from Jack Nicholson in the 1989 live-action film and Mark Hamill voicing the character in the animated series and games. Heath Ledger gave a great performance in “The Dark Knight,” but wasn’t a good portrayal of the actual character (more a fanboy comic fan problem than a criticism) while Jared Leto already seems forgotten about from his laughably bad turn in “Suicide Squad.” Joaquin Phoenix gets more meat to chew than any of these previous portrayals, and I would say he ranks in the middle of the pack as far as both loyalty to the comics and acting go.
We get to see a fair amount of growth (or rather, recession) from Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck and, for the most part, it is subtle and well done. He becomes more confident and gutsier as the film progresses and he begins to fall more and more into madness, and up until the final act Phillips is able to keep it in control. I’m not sure I buy into the “career best” talk here for Phoenix, but it is a very well-done performance that is knowingly uncomfortable, and balances sympathetic and pity.
As far as direction goes, it was the area surely most folk were hesitant about coming in. As a director, Todd Phillips is best known for, and has almost exclusively done, dumb comedies (“Old School” and “The Hangover”); however rarely are his films very good (I think I named the only two that are). Here he has some nice moments of refined direction and symbolism that are the acts of a mature talent, however there are also moments, especially in the third act, where he is basically looking at the camera and saying “hey guys, check *this* out!”
There is a point where Phoenix says that he used to think his life was a tragedy, but now he realizes it’s a comedy. And there is a lot of truth to that, that two people can look at the same event and see it as two different things (“humor is tragedy plus time”). There are points in this film that are so uncomfortable or unnerving that several members of my audience had no choice but to laugh, and I think that is a compliment to Phillips and his team.
Speaking of the third act, it is an interesting conundrum. For most of the film, Phillips refuses to take sides with or against Phoenix and his crimes, essentially presenting us with the events and letting us decide for ourselves when enough is enough. However when the climax comes, Phillips decides it would be more fun to laugh with and root for the Joker, so the score, soundtrack and script get away from the uncomfortable and awkward nature of mental illness and lean into dark comedy.
“Joker” is one of those films that seems to think it is more revolutionary than it actually is, but it features a semi-layered performance from Joaquin Phoenix in a type of role that normally wouldn’t be done by an actor with his resume. It somewhat loses its footing in the third act (more that it abandons what it was setting up, not that it gets bad) but “Joker” is worth seeing and talking about, and the fact a comic book movie has gotten people talking about more than capes and spandex after the credits roll is worth commending, for better or worse.
Critic’s Rating: 7/10.