Joker (2019)

Joker (2019 film) poster.jpgDirector: Todd Phillips
Running Time: 122 Minutes
Rating: 15
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Francis Conroy, Brett Cullen, Glenn Fleshler, Bill Camp, Shea Whigham, Marc Maron, Douglas Hodge, Dante Pereira-Olson

Gotham City, 1981. Garbage strikes are occurring in the streets, the news reports the potential threat of super rats, and rising unemployment has left the financially poor citizens worse off. In the midst of it all, Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) works as a clown-for-hire, while taking care of his mother. After a violent encounter with rich citizens, Arthur will find his life careening towards an identity known as Joker.

As comic book films remain some of the most profitable films each year, and are intertwined with cinematic universes, studios are looking for ways their features can stand apart ever more. Deadpool and Logan both showed that storytelling suited for a more adult rating can fit within the genre, in their own ways, and Joker feels like the natural evolution of that. Feeling like the start of the Elseworlds series on the big screen, it's a good showcase for the freedom which can come from more self-contained storytelling. What a shame the actual film is pretty unremarkable, and forgettable.

It's no easy task to portray one of the most iconic characters in pop culture, as the latest iteration will often be compared to what came before. Be it through live action or vocal performances, The Joker has had numerous incarnations over the years, and the majority of them has been considered iconic and have long persevered. Joaquin Phoenix is one of the few actors who gets to portray the character before they get the green hair and make-up, and gives a staggering performance all throughout. He looks emaciated, with bones protruding out, in a physical transformation which brings to mind Christian Bale's startling change in The Machinist. But his role isn't just a physical change, he's an unpredictable animal with a startling look in his eyes, which tells volumes more than the large grin he tries to hide it with. It's an electric performance that will be the long remembered, as future Halloween costumes, and to be compared against whoever next portrays The Joker.

There are big ambitions in Scott Silver and Todd Phillips' script. It wants to tackling the crumbling society that is Gotham City, where the tension is on the rise, ready for the smallest thing to tip it all over, and unleash chaotic violence all over the place. The film's happy to tell about this element, but doesn't go far enough to actually show it, and what's intended there doesn't really come across on the screen. A couple of street kids, and some rich bullies, aren't enough to get this across, and it ends up feeling like things weren't a problem until Arthur starts on his journey to becoming the title character. If anything, Hildur Guðnadóttir's orchestral score, and Lawrence Sher's grimy cinematography, do better jobs at capturing this feeling.

Ideas and themes are brought up about relevant topics, as though the film has something to say about the class divide, and the mistreatment of mental health. It's unfortunate that nothing of interest is done with them, and the deepest dive we get into these issues is the equivalent of somebody pointing at issues and saying that it sucks. It feels generous to say the film touches on these elements, as much as nudges them and shouts "Good enough", before moving on. It feels like the most basic try at tackling societal issues, which never goes ventures below surface level.

It's worth mentioning, there's one violent scene prior to the third act which is easily the films standout moment. It's pretty violent, utterly tense, and very well crafted, but is unfortunately the rarity over the 122 minute runtime. The third act is meant to be when all the pieces come together, and the film leads into the most attention grabbing portion, when Arthur embraces the titular identity to become the villain we all expect, and becomes the catalyst for what occurs next. That it all feels so rote and unremarkable is disappointing, as though there was more focus on jarring musical cues, and forced connections to the DC Universe. It's not helped that, the big monologue which is supposed to be a call to arms, feels more like the character being used as a mouthpiece to rally against "PC culture hijacking comedy", as a number of colourful characters would say completely straight-faced.

It's all saddening, because the potential is there for this feature. Todd Phillips clearly wanted to prove he was more than appealing to the frat boy sensibilities which powered his comedic output, but one gets the impression his ideas of being very serious are through a subpar try at a Martin Scorsese film. Sorry, but you'll have to dig deeper than paying homage to The King of Comedy.

If you want a film where Joaquin Phoenix plays a mentally scarred loner who looks after his mother, and expresses himself in violent ways, then good news, You Were Never Really Here is available to watch. Joker wishes to declare itself as a dark character study with relevant issues at the forefront, but there's little lurking beneath these surface level attempts. Thank goodness for the casting, which gets one of today's best actors to give their take on such an iconic character.