Director: Todd Phillips
Writer: Todd Phillips, Scott Silver
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy
Distributor: Warner Bros.
Rated R | Minutes: 122
Release Date: October 4, 2019
One of the worse things that a writer and director can do in a comic book film adaptation is misinterpret the source material. It is one thing to re-envision it in order to suit a vision of the story that you want to tell, but it is something else when you go far off the edge just to prove you can be the bleakest of the lot. That is what Todd Phillip‘s Joker does. Using Gotham City as a canvas, the film is painted with the colors of Martin Scorsese inspiration and the complexities of heavy themes of mental illness and social inequality, with a slight touch of DC, all of which makes Joker a dark, depressing, and gritty hardboiled crime drama that also happens to be the origins story for the clown prince of crime. The story delves into the mind of the lonely title character, played brilliantly by Joaquin Phoenix, who has been dumped on by society. But as fascinating as the lead performance is, everything else about it lacks complexities and nuance, and only further stigmatizes those who do suffer from mental illness.
My full review here below.
In Joker, Joaquin Phoenix plays Arthur Fleck, a troubled comedian suffering from mental illness who has been discarded by society and left to rot, much like the garbage that fills the streets of Gotham City, which is more like 1980s New York City. He can’t hold down a firm job as a clown-for-hire because of a condition that causes him to laugh uncontrollably and without warning. It also emboldens everyone around him to bully him, whether it’s physically or verbally. His delusions are only further fueled by his mother’s empty praise and his fantasy that she had a relationship with mayoral candidate Thomas Wayne. But as the truth slowly starts to unravel and the bullying has reached its boiling point, Arthur lets himself go and transforms into the Joker.
While Joker is not undeserving of its praise towards Phoenix’s transformative performance as the titular character, a large part of its problems lie within its depiction of mental illness and failure to fully explore the toxicity of social inequality. It’s largely a bleak and depressing character study that has very little room for hope or optimism.
Society has largely cast aside the lower-income citizens of Gotham City, leaving many desperate to make money in any way possible. Trash is piling up due to a garbage strike, which is a catalyst to the super rats that are running loose in the city. All of that is just fodder to the rich to pick on and mock those who are less fortunate. The super-rich Thomas Wayne promises that he can change all of that when he is mayor, but never spends any time in the city or talking to those who are struggling. He even goes as far as to publicly call these citizens clowns.
This only fuels Arthur’s narcissism. He feels that the world owes him a great debt because of how the world treats him. And because of that, he will be the spark that ignites a revolution against the rich. However, the idea of the societal inequality never really connects to Arthur’s transformation as the Joker. Rather, it treats it as a convenient thing. Arthur isn’t interested in the politics and says his transformation is just a part of the act. Whereas, the people see Joker as a symbol, a hero of the people. Actually, anti-hero would be a more accurate description.
Slowly but surely, the audience bears witness to who Arthur will eventually become. Even in the opening scene, Arthur is seen prepping to go out to do his day job as a clown-for-hire, believing that he was put on this earth to spread joy and laughter. But his preparation says otherwise. There isn’t any joy. Phillips makes a point of using the camera to close in on Arthur’s frown as he paints clown makeup on his face. Using his fingers to pull the ends of his mouth to make it look as though he is smiling, we can see that Arthur is suffering on the inside. That sort of suffering only gets worse as he is bullied by his fellow co-workers because of his pathological laughter and beaten up by kids when they take his sign. And if things weren’t bad enough, a co-worker gives him a gun, which is against the employer’s policy, and he is accused of stealing a sign. His only sense of joy is when he comes home to his mother, as she calls him “Happy.” But even then, there is a certain degree of insincerity as she is more concerned about sending out a letter to Thomas Wayne.
But this allows us to see Arthur’s vulnerabilities, and thus making him more human than any of the previous iterations of the character. Where Jack Nicholson’s Joker was more hokey and cheesy, and Heath Ledger’s Joker was an anarchist with a cause, Phoenix’s Joker is unpredictable. This uncontrollable laugh of his is painful to watch. One can’t help but feel sorry for the character as he struggles to gain control of these outbursts and just be angry at those who do not understand. And since Arthur doesn’t get a chance to feel any real care, joy, or love, everything to him seems like a joke. In one of his journal entries, he writes, “The worst part about having a mental illness is that people expect you to behave as though you don’t.” In another entry he writes, “I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.”
And as the film dives deeper into Arthur’s psyche, we have a better understanding of how he operates and what he sees (or thinks he sees). It’s almost hard to tell what is real and what is fantasy considering that Arthur has trouble differentiating between the two. While this may make him an unreliable storyteller, one has to consider that he is only that way because he is a victim of circumstance.
As a result, the film asks its audience to sympathize with Arthur by turning him into a victim. Arthur is robbed of whatever dignity he has left by everyone around him. So he uses his dreams of becoming a comedian as an outlet to escape from all the pains of the real world. Seeing all that suffering, it only makes it harder not to feel sorry for what Arthur goes through. And soon, all the bullying, fodder for his narcissism, and lies he is told will reach a tipping point. Eventually, Arthur acts out in violence against those who have wronged him. But there is a problem with that as well.
Using Arthur’s mental illness as means for him to become the Joker is one thing, but on the flip side of it, it only further stigmatizes those who suffer from mental illness, making them seem incompetent or dangerous. Arthur is constantly told that he and his mother are crazy. His co-workers constantly make fun of him. People on the streets beat the shit out of him. And to make matters worse, his idol, late-night host Franklin Murray (Robert De Niro), publicly humiliates him by showing one of Arthur’s failed stand-up acts. Though the film attempts to address the seriousness of mental illness, it doesn’t say anything about how some people who don’t suffer from mental illness can be just as bad. So it uses mental illness as a defense to justify these evil acts.
This is not to broadly say that people cannot tell the difference between the two. However, given the current climate where we are quick to place blame or even make a scapegoat, I have a few concerns that Joker might embolden some to be violent or just hurt those who do suffer from mental illness. But I’d like to be a little bit optimistic about the situation and hope that people can understand that maybe all of the recent violence we’ve see aren’t because someone is mentally ill, but rather, it is because the person is inherently evil.
Of course, there are some bright spots in this otherwise deeply dark and depressing film. Joker is heavily inspired by Martin Scorsese’s films of the 1980s. Themes of the dangers of celebrity worship, the toxicity of social inequality, and mental illness resonate throughout the film, as it does in Taxi Driver and The King Of Comedy. The isolation that Arthur feels is reminiscent of that of Travis from Taxi Driver, while Arthur’s failed standup act and obsession with his late-night host idol is a near mirror image of Rupert Pupkin from The King Of Comedy.
And, we cannot overlook Phoenix’s performance as Arthur Fleck. It’s filled with nuance and pathos. So much of the praise that he has been given is certainly well-deserved considering the dedication he gives to becoming the character that we see on screen. The mannerisms and gestures are awkward, and the intonation of his voice is a haunting new look at the character. His appearance is gangly, and the desperation to gain control of his pathological laughter is painful to watch.
Joker‘s cynical, dark, and nihilistic approach makes it one of the most unconventional DC films that Warner Bros. has to offer. While we have seen plenty of that in other comic book films, none of them come nearly as close to being as overly bleak and depressing as Joker. And that gives us a new perspective on how we view these films. But even if Joker is a great character study that is backed by a wonderful performance from Phoenix, as it film it lacks nuance and cannot match the energy of its manic titular character. It seems to trivialize real world mental health issues and puts the blame on all of the glorified violence on mental illness. It fails to point out that bad people are just bad and that their evil is fueled by something else, such as like racism. And as much as it tries to be a reflection of the society that we live in today through means of Scorsese vibes, there is only so much cynicism a person can take.