March 21, 2020

“Joker” Review: Put on a Happy Face

Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker look was devised by makeup artist Niki Lendermann.
The iconic Batman villain Joker has been known by several names over his seventy-nine years of life on the page, among them the Clown Prince of Crime, the Ace of Knaves, the Jester of Genocide, the Harlequin of Hate, and many more. However, unlike most comic book villains, he’s never had his “true” origin story firmly established. Until now.

Todd Phillips’ take on the painted-faced maniac stars Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck, a man (literally) beaten down by a society that doesn’t care for him. Arthur is affected by a chronic condition that causes him to sporadically laugh uncontrollably, which not only causes him physical pain but is a detriment to the social life he dearly wants to have. Aspiring to be a stand-up comedian, he has a job as a clown-for-hire, while also tending to the needs of his mother (Frances Conroy), whose misplaced hope in Trumpian businessman Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) is affecting her mentally and indirectly causing her family financial ruin. On top of all that, Arthur’s one chance at stand-up comedy is being mocked by his favorite late-night talk show host, Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro). It seems that life itself has conspired against Arthur, and it takes a toll.

I saw Joker twice in its first weekend, not expecting a masterpiece, but I came away from the first viewing both extremely disturbed and incredibly impressed. Phillips has managed to create a film that is not only bold, beautiful and devastating, but also wondrous food for thought. The film is a psychoanalysis of Arthur Fleck, and we get to see inside his head in what feels like a series of vignettes that build up to his eventual transformation into the psychotic Joker. The character is, in itself, reimagined, with Phoenix leading with a ferociously committed performance that blew me away so much I would have been thoroughly perplexed if he didnt walk away with the Oscar for Best Actor.

Joker was chock-full of shocking moments, all pulled off masterfully.
Even though it was written over three years ago, Joker has remarkable modern relevance. It’s set in the fictional Gotham City, in the middle of a garbage strike, which only makes the environment more hostile and unsettling. In fact, it’s these elements that vastly improve Joker, meaning it’s more focused on important real-life issues than superheroes and crime-fighting. It’s not a typical comic-book movie.

That doesn’t mean superhero movie fans can’t enjoy Joker; it still has plenty of easter eggs and small details to satisfy long-time fans, and a young Bruce Wayne (Batman) appears in two sequences that will no doubt delight comic-book fans.

That said, Joker definitely isn’t for everyone. It’s designed to make you uncomfortable, and it’s an intense drama with fully-rounded characters, unforgettable moments and enough philosophical questions to keep you discussing the film for days afterward. [Grade: A+]

Director: Todd Phillips
Writer: Todd Phillips and Scott Silver
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen, Marc Maron
Rated: R for strong bloody violence, disturbing behavior, language and brief sexual images
Available: HBO Max
Fun Fact: The film got an eight-minute standing ovation at its Venice Film Festival premiere.

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