Joker (2019) – Film Review
Did a character as primal as Joker need a detailed backstory? And one directed by Hangover and Deadpool director Todd Phillips?
It turns out the answer is a resounding yes in a film that outwardly has the look and feel of two Martin Scorsese Films – Taxi Driver (1976) and King of Comedy (1982) (both starring Robert De Niro, who also appears in this film)
After a posthumous Oscar for Heath Ledger in 2008’s The Dark Knight people thought that there was no need to try another iteration of his iconic Joker, especially as the version shown in Suicide Squad (2016) (played by Jared Leto) seemed like such a misstep.
But Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal of a mentally ill man who comes off his medication because of government cuts and ultimately becomes the Clown Prince of Crime is unique and compelling.
It’s all done against the backdrop of a Gotham City that looks as run down as it’s ever been on celluloid.
Rubbish is piled on the streets as city workers go on strike, giant rats are being attracted to the garbage and crime is up.
Government funding is being cut and social services are hit hard, leaving a struggling Arthur Fleck – an emaciated Phoenix – isolated in his lonely existence with living in a run down flat with his mother (Frances Conroy).
He scratches out a living as a clown, but life is tough and his employer is unsympathetic with Fleck’s disabilities.
A chance meeting with an attractive female neighbour (played by Deadpool alumnus Zazie Beets) seems to improve things briefly but Fleck’s frustrated ambition to be a comedian is what sets him down a very dark road when he is humiliated by a talk show host (played by Robert De Niro).
His modest comedy chops – he shamelessly steals a Bob Monkhouse gag – are sabotaged by his own nervous tic.
It a slow burner for sure, but the acting and direction are excellent as nods are made to classic Batman graphic novels.
Of course, there are nods to the Batman mythos at large, including references that long time DC Comics fans would appreciate.
It’s almost apt that I saw this film on World Mental Health Day – Joker addresses modern topics in a post-financial crisis politically charged world.
Joker’s Gotham City is lacking in compassion, with a firm divide between haves and have-nots, addressed in a scenario which appears very much to reflect New York in the 1980s but also pointedly critiques the modern day.
Phillips’ approach is more direct than the epic takes from Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy – it’s smaller scale but comes to life in the visceral third act which is executed much more interestingly than that film’s ‘Occupy Wall Street’ theme.
There is a more traditional Batman movie being developed by Matt Reeves – and he now has a very complicated benchmark to satisfy.
And even though a door is left ajar for a sequel perhaps this particular DC world is best left to the imagination after a stunning finale.
Joker (15; strong bloody violence; 122 minutes)
Director(s): Todd Phillips
Cast Includes: Joaquin Phoenix, Zazie Beetz, Robert De Niro, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen, Marc Maron
Summary: JOKER is a thriller in which an aspiring comedian becomes increasingly unstable after funding for his psychiatric support is curtailed.
Rating: ***** (Violent but compelling slow building Joker origin story)