“Is it just me, or is it getting crazier out there?”
Life comes atcha fast, or: sorry I vanished, because life is chaos when you’ve got three jobs and you’re still trying to be creative and make your own shit. However, we’re not here for excuses: we’re here for movie reviews, and there’s no movie riper for review right now than Joker, DC’s second contribution to the world of live-action comic book movies here in 2019. I did see Shazam! earlier this year and loved it, but I definitely did not go to Joker expecting to see or feel any of what I saw and felt during Shazam!. Ren and I went to see Joker at the Coolidge Corner Theater in Allston, MA on 70mm film, which is already a cool experience— we try to take advantage every time the Coolidge offers it.
Now, what we’re looking at here is a film laden with discourse, beginning even before it was released. In the interest of full disclosure going into this review, here’s my take: you can’t ignore the apologizing of violent white men in real life, and every piece of art that’s created both influences and is influenced by its society, and so Joker can never exist in a vacuum. It’s not the best timing for a movie like this, and the trailers certainly didn’t do the movie justice. I, personally, do not feel that this movie is apologizing for who the Joker is, or justifying men who act like the Joker does; Joker feels more like an exploration as to how someone could become the Joker, and why, but I never once felt that it was a how-to guide.
We’re also in the world of movie theater shooters, one of whom was directly inspired by the Joker, and it would be tone-deaf to pretend Joker won’t inspire some dumb shits who spend all their time getting mad on Reddit. I don’t feel that Joker sympathizes with said shits, but they’ll find ways to make it sympathetic regardless. I was concerned I was going to get shot during the movie, but, then again, I’m worried I’ll get shot every time I go to the movies, so this is nothing new. I did tell my friends to politicize my death if I died at Joker, and I meant it, so.
Regardless of all of this, Joker is making beaucoup bucks; Atom Tickets said Joker outsold pre-sale totals from Venom and It Chapter Two, two of the greatest movies ever made, and was Atom’s second-bestselling (R-rated) movie of 2019 after John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum, which is impossible to surpass, as this is the year of Keanu. Back to Joker, though!
First and foremost, we’ll deal with the basics. Todd Phillips, the man who helped give us Borat, not only directed Joker, he also produced it — with Bradley Cooper and Emma Tillinger Koskoff, the latter of whom was also a producer on movies like Shutter Island and The Wolf of Wall Street, as well as upcoming movies like The Irishman and Uncut Gems, so, basically, Emma’s set for the next decade. Todd also wrote this movie with Scott Silver, who had been attached with Todd since August of 2017, when Warner Brothers and DC Films announced that Joker was in production. This pissed off Jared Leto, which is great, because anything that pisses off Jared Leto is fine by me.
From the interviews I’ve been reading with Todd Phillips, it seems like he came off making War Dogs and decided it was time to contribute to DC’s expanding universe by suggesting a standalone movie about the Joker, who has seen several different characterizations in the last twenty years alone. Joaquin Phoenix, who plays the Joker (or Arthur Fleck, as he’s called in the movie itself, as he’s not yet the Joker for the majority of the film), was reportedly interested in doing a character study movie about a comic book villain, and that’s exactly what he did here. Thank God Joaquin Phoenix decided to again grace us with his presence, after gifting us with Walk the Line and Her, because he nailed his performance. Todd and Joaquin are a dynamic duo of filmmaking.
However, Todd Phillips is also a dingus. I have no idea why he’s felt the need to be a complete and utter fool out in public recently, because this movie’s really got nothing to do with the comments he’s been making to the press. All his talk about how “woke culture” is what pushed him to make a dramatic film instead of a comedy is absolutely bonkers, because Joker has minimal commentary on this point at all. Todd Phillips seems to think that comedy should be offensive, in which case, yeah, I’m good with him no longer making comedies. If he sticks to making stuff like Joker, I’ll probably just ignore him more than anything else. I don’t really need another edgelord white man comedian in his late forties telling me he can only be funny when he’s insulting me to my face. Nevertheless, Todd’s inane comments aside, Joker can exist separate from its creator’s unrelated concepts of what comedy “should” or “should not” be. Heads-up: if the oppressor isn’t the butt of the joke, it’s not a good joke.
As I did for you last time, I’m gonna give you my summary of Joker, because I think it’s more fun that way:
It’s 1981, and Arthur Fleck is a clown-for-hire that low-key wants to die and has a brain condition that makes him laugh all the time. The movie begins with Arthur getting attacked by a group of teens while in costume (everyone’s greatest fear), and his coworker Randall gives him a gun afterwards so he can protect himself. Arthur’s life has many ups and downs: he’s caring for his mother, Penny; he’s trying to date Sophie, a woman who lives down the hall; and he gets fired from his clownery after accidentally throwing his gun across the floor of a children’s ward in a hospital and then waving it at the kids. Then again, who among us hasn’t made that mistake?
Arthur then goes from crazy to absolutely bananas, murdering three drunk Wayne Enterprises white-boy dipshits on the train, all of whom vividly reminded me of Brock Turner, so make of that what you will. Arthur wastes those capitalists and accidentally starts a movement in Gotham where everyone decides to dress like clowns, eat the rich, and dismantle capitalism, which is what we always hope for in a Batman movie. Arthur’s life then takes a direct downward spiral as Arthur loses his medication, finds out some crazy shit about his mother, and watches his hero (and imaginary father? Arthur’s got some shit to work out) Murray Franklin, a talk show host on television, ridicule Arthur’s jokes and his neurological laugh condition.
Arthur’s life truly derails the further the movie goes; there are still touches of Batman, though, like Wayne Manor, the existence of Bruce and Thomas Wayne, and the larger structures of Gotham that will end up necessitating Batman’s existence. From here, the movie transforms into a chaotic cacophony of dark humor and violent spiraling, much like Arthur himself transforms into the Joker. As Arthur devolves further and further, and starts to take on the Joker persona, the movie goes from good to great and, of course, ends with an absolute bang.
Without giving away too many details, there’s Joker for you. There’s some truly phenomenal moments throughout the film, and, overall, I got the vibe that everything Arthur does in the context of this film can be likened to communism: workable in theory, not ideal in practice.
In the technical sense, Joker is great, but not groundbreaking. It’s well-shot and well-directed, and I enjoyed it. The cinematography by Lawrence Sher provided some breathtaking shots and settings, and Jeff Groth’s editing was massively impressive. I also want to shout-out the makeup and costuming department, namely Nicki Ledermann (makeup head), Kay Georgiou (hair department head), and Mark Bridges (costume designer), because they pulled together an amazing and original look for this take on the Joker that still evokes the Joker familiar to us all already. Joaquin Phoenix’s performance was the best part of the movie itself, and we already established in my review for The Witch that I didn’t want to write complicated or overly-technical reviews, so I’ll just say that the movie was really good technically. Kudos to the creative team for their work here. We see some masterful shots in Joker.
On to the casting. The casting, the casting, the casting, the greatest part of this film, should not be underestimated as the major contributor to how good I feel Joker is. First of all, of course, Joaquin Phoenix giving us the performance of a lifetime as Arthur Fleck, finally getting to create the character study of a comic book villain that he’s been jonesing for for years. He purposefully interprets the character in a way nobody has before, though I was getting shades of Heath Ledger towards the end, which may just be me (Heath Ledger was a god on earth and I will hear no bad words about him), but is also a credit to Joaquin’s performance, because Heath was also amazing in the role. I definitely left the movie feeling that, after the events of the movie, Joaquin’s Joker would go on to become a very different Joker than any we’ve seen before, which is good. This Joker isn’t an anti-hero, isn’t someone to root for, isn’t a guy doing the right thing: he’s someone who fully snaps and becomes incredibly motivated to do a whole bunch of murder because it makes him feel good, and then other people project messages onto his actions, when, really, his whole mentality is I want to do what I want to do, and that’s really it. Sometimes, bad people do bad things just because they want to; this is the case for Arthur.
The supporting cast consists of three stellar performers: Frances Conroy as Penny Fleck, Arthur’s mother; Zazie Beetz as Sophie, Arthur’s love interest; and Robert De Niro as Murray Franklin, Gotham talk show host and Arthur’s imagination-daddy. All three of them do a wonderful job rounding out the film’s characters. Penny’s just the right amount of bonkers; I expect nothing less than stellar performances from Frances Conroy, and I’m never disappointed. The same goes for Zazie Beetz, who has a few extra layers to her performance that arise by the end of the movie, and who masterfully jumps back and forth between Sophie, the real woman and single mother who lives down the hall from Arthur, and Sophie, the imaginary girlfriend who loves Arthur so much that he can do no wrong in her eyes. Of course, I don’t even need to vouch for De Niro at this point, but he was amazing, as well — this is probably one of the most enjoyable roles I’ve watched him in recently. He did an incredible job and filled out the last act of the movie wonderfully.
The script is great, of course. The performances bring it to life, but it’s a solid script to begin with. Arthur is written not as a simple archetypal villain, but as a complex and monstrous person finally coming into his own. Arthur’s actions and dialogue gave me shades of serial killer energy, and, coming from someone who consumes as much true crime media as I do, this actually means something. Arthur Fleck is a deep, layered man, but not a good one; he is horrible, but not evil. More than anything, Arthur Fleck is a violent, nightmarish abomination of a man. He is still a man. Todd Phillips and Scott Silver wrote a dynamic interpretation of the Joker; it’s great writing, good overall.
In terms of the music and the soundtrack, I was suitably impressed. It’s not like I could create any music close to being considered “good” music, so this is not exactly my area of expertise, but I thought the score and soundtrack added suitable depth to Joker. Hildur Guðnadóttir, the composer for Joker, was also the composer for The Revenant, and played solo cello on the Arrival score, so she’s already established herself as a god-tier Icelandic composer and cellist, something the rest of us can only dream of being. The use of popular music in the soundtrack, too, was well done: Frank Sinatra’s “That’s Life,” A Little Night Music’s “Send in the Clowns” (of course), and Jimmy Durante’s “Smile.” Tragically, they also use known violent pedophile Gary Glitter’s “Rock and Roll Part II” at the climax of the film, and it absolutely slaps. Gary Glitter should not get any money for this; if he gets any royalties, I’m gonna replace this song with Take A Chance On Me by ABBA and rerelease the movie myself. Let me know if this becomes necessary.
Now, Joker is getting mixed reviews from everyone, for a vast spectrum of reasons. I don’t like to read discourse on Reddit or anything like that— it stresses me out too much to see a bunch of dudes screaming at each other for no reason— so I’m not really interested in the opinions of dudebros and edgelords who just wanna be seen as the Joker amongst their friend group or just wanna jerk off to clown makeup, whatever it is that makes dumb guys stan the Joker so hard. I’m more interested in the opinions of people who actually put thought into the movie. Joker got a 68% on Rotten Tomatoes, but its audience score is 90%, which I think just lends credence to my theory that this is a pretty good movie with performances that absolutely slap. The audience doesn’t give as much of a shit about the technical elements, nor should they have to, which is why we have two separate scores on Rotten Tomatoes in the first place.
Some are saying Joker is disgusting, but in a good way. Some say it’s dark and horrifying. Some say it’s timely. Still others call it bleak, boring, slapdash, juvenile. In the end, it boils down to this: everybody has different tastes, and you can’t please everybody. You can’t have a movie like Joker and expect it to appeal to everyone. No movie appeals to everyone, and Joker is even further down the path of niche enjoyment. It’s a fundamental contributor to the zeitgeist of 2019, but, beyond that, it doesn’t really have a tremendously wide appeal. Its media coverage was strange, the marketing was intriguing but bizarre, and so I’m not surprised to see a mixed result from the reviews after. I’m also not surprised that a movie whose main message is sometimes bad people just do bad things had a secondary message of fuck capitalism, eat the rich, because fuck capitalism, eat the rich.
Thomas Wayne is almost a bad guy in this movie, if not actually functioning as Arthur Fleck’s bad guy. Like the wannabe Brock Turners Arthur murders on the subway, Thomas Wayne is the sort of guy we have to watch on television all the time, telling the working class that if they just tried harder and didn’t act up, they could be crazy billionaires just like him, and could make Gotham a better place on their own. The audience understands how and why Arthur does what he does, in the situation he’s put into; though healthy, sane people would never do what Arthur did, they understand the society that got him to that point, because it’s our society. I hesitate to call Thomas Wayne the bad guy of the movie, though. Ren feels that Thomas Wayne is Gotham, capitalism, fascism, and everything that represents; I don’t disagree, but I think Arthur is his own worst enemy and, towards that end, is his own bad guy.
This brings us to my final point, and one of the most important: Arthur Fleck is his own antagonist. He’s been smashed in the head multiple times (which, as we know, often leads to psychological conditions that can develop into serial killer actions), and he destroys his own life, with the help of a society that doesn’t ever actually help him. His unchecked mental illnesses, his justifications for his gruesome actions, and his general what-the-fuck-ness all provide the movie with a valuable sub-narrative: man is his own worst enemy, or, to quote Hadestown:
“The meanest dog you’ll ever meet, it ain’t the hound dog in the street; he bares some teeth and tears some skin, but, brother, that’s the worst of him. The dog you really got to dread is the one that howls inside your head. It’s him whose howling drives men mad and a mind to its undoing.”
In the end, Joker accomplishes what it set out to do: telling an indie story about a comic book villain and doing a character study on what could make a guy like this become a guy like this. The movie was enjoyable and bizarre. It’s a glimpse into a dark and monstrous character that tries not to pull any punches. My conclusion is, yes, Joker is, too, a watchable movie. However, if you’re not a fan of getting gunned down in cineplexes, or if you would just prefer not to give more money to the rich people this movie is encouraging us to assassinate, just wait to watch Joker until it’s out of theaters.