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First run Theater cinema

Joker, from writer/director Todd Phillips (Old School, Due Date, and The Hangover movies), is the latest fruitless attempt to make an origin story seem even remotely interesting and breathe new life into exhausted superhero comic book material. Taking up a role that has traditionally been played or voiced by an iconic star—Cesar Romero, Jack Nicholson, Mark Hamill, Jared Leto, and, most notably, Heath Ledger—Joaquin Phoenix dons the green hair and make-up and takes center stage in a movie devoted entirely to Batman’s most colorful and interesting adversary, the Joker. But with Bruce Wayne just a little kid during the telling of this tale, Joker’s antagonist here is our entire rotten society. 

Phoenix delivers his usual rivetingly raw but undisciplined performance as Arthur Fleck, a mentally unstable, impoverished clown and wanna-be stand-up comedian who gradually disappears down a spiral of failure, self-pity, and malicious treatment from everyone in his life. He ultimately transforms into the iconic, nihilistic, anarchistic super villain and announces himself by landing a guest spot on a Tonight Show-style late-night comedy talk show. 

Phillips has designed his Gotham City to look like Martine Scorsese’s New York circa 1981 (we can tell the exact year from two movie titles we see on a theater marquee), and he’s reimagined the Joker as an amalgam of Scorsese characters played by Robert De Niro—Arthur Fleck is basically Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle living the life of The King of Comedy’s Rupert Pupkin. And I mean literally living Rupert Pupkin’s life—Fleck is a socially awkward loser who lives with his mother and fantasizes about being a stand-up comic who will someday share the couch with a legendary Johnny Carson type TV show host. He even covets an attractive African American woman who recalls King of Comedy’s Diahnne Abbott in several ways. Like Travis Bickle, he is a sociopath who rehearses confrontations alone in his apartment and harbors thoughts of assassinations. It is impossible not to draw parallels to King of Comedy and Taxi Driver, but Phillips makes sure we really get it by casting De Niro as the late-night talk show host.

In terms of directorial style, shot composition, and editing, Joker bears no resemblance to a Scorsese picture of the early ‘80s, but its lighting, color, and production design evoke that period well. Setting this story nearly forty years in the past is the most successful thing about the picture in that it gives us a comic book movie that relies on gritty, menacing atmosphere rather than gadgets, technology, or otherworldly abilities. Phillips is making a character study or psychological thriller rather than an action-adventure blockbuster, so there are no physics-defying fight scenes or larger than life chase sequences. And, mercifully, there is not an endless CGI battles where two indestructible beings toss each other around and destroy an entire city, planet, or universe while they’re at it.  The violence in Joker feels authentic, direct, and disturbing, not like a comic book.

But because Philips makes such an effort to ground his picture in a realistic period setting, rather than a heightened fantasy world, his sloppy writing derails the entire final third of the movie. In order for the climax to work, we must accept that in 1981 little hole-in-the-wall comedy clubs recorded their open-mic sets with broadcast-quality videotape and then posted them somewhere for network TV producers to discover and put on the air without getting clearance from the performer. This critique might sound like nitpicking from a guy obsessed with film and TV formats, but it is the first of many broken links in a suspension-of-disbelief-bridge that gets Joker onto the couch sitting next to De Niro.

One of several things that make The King of Comedy so effective is the credible way it devises how a guy as clearly unhinged as Rupert Pupkin could get himself onto the Tonight Show. In Joker, we're expected to believe that Arthur Fleck would be welcomed onto a network broadcast without any prep, any meetings with producers or Standards and Practices officials, or any pre-interview other than a quick hello from the host; and that he’d be able to go on live television in his full clown make-up at a time when people dressed as clowns are rioting in the streets and killing cops. And everything that follows the TV show climax is even less plausible—either in this movie’s world, in the world of the early ‘80s, or in today’s world.

It isn’t just the ending that makes Phillips’ picture so sloppy. There is simply too little of substance here outside of an interesting performance by an actor and some effective callbacks to other, vastly superior movies. Joker is a perfect example of the difference between pop-culture appropriation artists like Quentin Tarantino and hacks that just imitate and copy work that came before. The idea of reimagining the Joker as a De Niro-like character and setting the movie in a quasi-Scorsese period milieu is great. Getting De Niro himself to star in the movie is also cool. But a filmmaker must then make hundreds of additional choices, borrowing from countless other sources, in order to create something original.

Since it premiered at film festivals much has been made of the fear that this film will incite riots or be some kind of call to arms for violent unhinged alt-right men. But it’s hard to imagine anyone really caring about or identifying with Phoenix’s Joker the way many did with Ledger’s. This version of the character is not depicted as an anti-hero in any way; and his problems clearly lies more within himself than the harsh, corrupt, unfair society he lives in. It’s also notable that the society that created this Joker is not our contemporary culture, but that of the early ‘80s (isn’t that when the MAGA crowd thinks America was great? Or is it earlier? Do they even know?). In any case, the focus on Joker’s internal workings is oddly the film’s biggest problem. It is hard to envision this sad dude ever becoming a character as compelling as the one played by Heath Ledger or Jack Nicholson. Of course, I’m notorious for disliking nearly all comic book superhero movies, so a negative review from me isn’t especially surprising. But hell, even I like the Joker. However, I can’t say I liked Joker

Twitter Capsule:
Phillips and Phoenix reimagine Batman's greatest nemesis as an '80s-era Scorsese/De Niro character in this thin origin story that lacks complexity as a character study and thematic depth as a psychological thriller, but it's better than most comic-book movies.

Directed by Todd Phillips
Produced by Bradley Cooper, Todd Phillips, and Emma Tillinger Koskoff

Written by Todd Phillips and Scott Silver
Based on characters by DC Comics

With: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen, Shea Whigham, Bill Camp, Glenn Fleshler, Leigh Gill, Josh Pais, Gary Gulman, Douglas Hodge, Brian Tyree Henry, Josh Pais, Hannah Gross, and Marc Maron

Cinematography: Lawrence Sher
Editing: Jeff Groth
Music: Hildur Guðnadóttir

Runtime: 121 min
Release Date: 04 October 2019
Aspect Ratio: 1.85 : 1