In Todd Phillips’s new adaptation, Joaquin Phoenix is a simulacrum of the sad clown.
Even before perusing Rotten Tomatoes, it was obvious to me that Todd Phillips’s Joker would be met with a divided response. By some it would be hailed as a refreshingly daring and serious take on one of the most iconic villains of all time, while simultaneously being derided by others as trite and unintelligent. I agree with both of these views in varying ways.
“Even before perusing Rotten Tomatoes, it was obvious to me that Todd Phillips’s Joker would be met with a divided response”
The film is set in 1981 Gotham City. The intended parallel with New York is thinly disguised here, with frequent references to crime and unemployment that mirror the conditions of the Big Apple during the crack epidemic. Phoenix plays Arthur Fleck, a loner living with his elderly mother and working two dead-end jobs, both of which involve dressing up as a clown: store mascot and entertainer of sick children (I’ve never been able to fathom why anyone thought this was a good idea).
Fleck has a condition that results in bouts of uncontrollable laughter (a real thing – it’s called the pseudobulbar effect). He has ambitions of becoming a stand-up comedian, and appearing on Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro)’s popular talk show. These plans are curtailed by his worsening mental illness.
“Phoenix is phenomenal in the title role”
Needless to say, Phoenix is phenomenal in the title role. His characters have always lived on the edge of madness – think Freddie Quell in The Master or Joe in You Were Never Really Here – but Joker sees him cross over completely. Fleck is resentful, but he is also bored with life; the first act features an excellent portrayal of anhedonia by Phoenix. His medications numb the pain, but they also numb everything.
Joker, on the other hand, is exhilarated; when he does away with the concept of inherent meaning, nothing is off limits. Heath Ledger was certainly a tough act to follow; this was made all the more apparent by Jared Leto’s dire turn in 2016’s Suicide Squad, but Phoenix’s calibre as an actor makes him more than capable. One of his great gifts is his extremely expressive face, which made the farewell between Freddie and Lancaster in The Master so affecting, and it serves him well as Joker. There is one distinct similarity to his turn as Commodus in Gladiator.
“The cinematography and soundtrack are very impressive”
The cinematography and soundtrack are very impressive. The director of photography is frequent Phillips collaborator Lawrence Sher, whose oeuvre is otherwise unremarkable, but here he is able to play with light in increasingly effective ways. Fleck is frequently obscured by intentionally poor or banal lighting and weather conditions, while Joker is drenched in a sea of colour.
The score by Hildur Guðnadóttir is reminiscent of Jocelyn Pook’s music for Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, though deeper and slower burning. Both films involve a form of altered reality: dreaming and psychosis. Todd Phillips may seem an incongruous choice for director given his history of cheap comedy flicks, but there is little in the film to suggest this.
“The biggest issue with the film is its derivativeness”
The biggest issue with the film is its derivativeness. The Dark Knight Rises was not released all that long ago, and with all the focus on working/criminal class uprising there is a sense of oh, do we really have to go through all this again? Not to mention the similarities Scorsese fans will recognise, particularly to Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy. In fact, Rupert Pupkin’s famous line is a good summation of Fleck’s mentality: “Better to be king for a night, than a schmuck for a lifetime”.
Fleck is also familiar in many ways, being the typical mentally ill loner with mummy issues. Not only is this reminiscent of Norman Bates, but of recent real life cases such as the folie a deux of Nancy and Adam Lanza. The positive aspect of this is the Joker’s transition from cool antihero to sympathetic loser, which is often the progenitor of such deviant criminality.
“Joker isn’t enough of a revelation to make it mandatory viewing, but it keeps you thinking after leaving the cinema”
Joker isn’t enough of a revelation to make it mandatory viewing, but it keeps you thinking after leaving the cinema, which is one of the essential markers of a noteworthy film, if not a good one. Thankfully it does enough to be recommended on merit, too.
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