So many people come and go in our lives every day, it’s easy to forget that other human beings have had entire lives up to the point we meet them (maybe that’s just the Walgreen’s cashier in me talking). Everybody’s got a story for how they got to their current point in their lives, even wanna be stand-up comics like Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix). Residing in Gotham City with his mother and working as a clown-for-hire, Arthur struggles through life due to his mental illness that includes a handicap that sends him into sudden fits of uncontrollable laughter. Bad luck follows Fleck wherever he goes as he searches for purpose in his life and a reliable father-figure to serve as a substitute for the dad he never knew.
Joker follows Fleck as he tries to get some answers into his past while his life spirals more and more out of control, pushing him closer and closer to becoming the iconic comic book villain the movie is named for. Being a feature-length origin story for a superhero’s adversary already makes Joker a very strange movie, one that does fully commit to its grounded Scorsese-esque aesthetic. Unlike, say, The Wolverine, the more muted character-driven proceedings don’t vanish for a more conventional superhero movie third act. Joker has no time for blue beams of light shooting into the sky, it stays down-to-Earth for its entire runtime so that it can create a character study of Arthur Fleck, one that leans heavily on Joaquin Phoenix’s lead performance as the character.
If anything in Joker deserves all the praise in the world, it’s Phoenix, who’s every bit as amazing as you heard. We’ve had plenty of other cinematic versions of the Joker and many of them (though not all) have been special. That means Phoenix is filling in some big shoes by taking on this role, but he manages to immediately make his turn as Joker totally his own. Phoenix is constantly compelling on-screen, especially in how he captures Fleck’s unnerving demeanor even when the character is putting on a faker than fake smile. Interestingly, he makes Fleck’s bursts of joy most chilling of all, which can be most notably seen in the third act. Fleck’s brief bursts of personal pride is depicted by Phoenix as a creepy blend of self-pity, self-righteousness and delusion.
There’s a childlike quality to this part of Fleck’s personality that Phoenix makes eerie as all hell. This aspect of Phoenix’s performance, as well as the entire lead turn, is frequently enhanced thanks to some nicely done camerawork. Cinematographer Lawrence Sher, reuniting with director Todd Phillips for the sixth time, captures many scenes with Arthur Fleck in extended single-takes that allow Pheonix a chance to show Fleck’s demeanor changing rapidly over the space of a single shot. A scene where he performs as a clown at a children’s hospital is a great example, the erratic nature of Phoenix’s performance as Fleck perfectly displayed by both the actor and the decision to frame this moment in a prolonged single-take.
The disturbing nature of Joker is reinforced by production design that renders Gotham as a crumbling graffiti-covered empire, the level of detail paid to getting all these nasty details right in the assorted sets is quite impressive. Kudos too to Hildur Guonadottir’s effectively chilling score for cementing the ambiance of the production, between her work here and her score on Chernobyl, Guonadottir is a composer I’ll certainly be keeping an eye out for in the future. Yes, the lead performance, the cinematography and score for Joker are all quite noteworthy. However, the backbone of the whole piece, the script, is far less bold than its creative aspirations. Simply put, Joker is a movie with a whole lot of grimness and even more sequences involving upbeat 1950’s tunes juxtaposed against seedy sequences set in the 1970s, but not much in the way of its own engaging characters or themes.
The people surrounded Arthur Fleck are a gaggle of forgettable supporting characters all adhering to character archetypes you’ve seen a million times before. An elderly morally ambiguous mother, a disposable love interest (poor Zazie Beetz has nothing to do in this specific role), a workplace rival, Joker just takes these broad archetypes and fails to imbue its own distinct personalities into them. Screenwriters Todd Phillips and Scott Silver have clearly seen classic Scorsese movies, but they’ve only taken surface-level homages to those productions instead of making use of the boldly-drawn characters and originality that marked those productions. Meek attempts at sociopolitical commentary are another shortcoming in the screenplay. Lots of talk is given in the story to the wealth gap in Gotham City as well as how the city treats people with mental health issues, but the film never finds time to actually say anything of substance on these issues.
Like classic Scorsese movies, real-world issues are something Joker just acknowledges exists without bringing anything original of its own design to the table. Surprisingly, the lack of creativity in the writing also extends to one of Joker’s key selling points in its marketing, specifically its attempts to be gruesome. Despite all the bruhaha surrounding Joker’s supposed “darkness”, Joker isn’t actually a massively disturbing movie. Sure there are some character demises in here that you could only get away with in an R-rated movie, but if you’ve seen any sort of grimy 1970s New York crime movies or the Scorsese films that inspired it, little to nothing in Joker will really shock you. Nothing in here is as chilling as, say, the omnipresent atmosphere of Mikey & Nicky. The difference between Joker and that Elaine May film is simple; Mikey & Nicky generated unease through specifically drawn characters whereas Joker’s darkness, on a script level, is just a couple of shock value deaths happening to characters we don’t care about.
Despite having little to say in terms of weighty themes or thoughtfully-drawn characters, Joker insists on a somber self-serious tone that tends to make the movie feel like a person passing themselves off as a philosopher while solely spouting out phrases they found on a fortune cookie. I genuinely admire this handsomely made production for trying something different as a DC Comics movie adaptation and there are parts of this production that do achieve its intended chilling effect. Specifically, Joaquin Phoenix’s lead performance, as well as both the cinematography and score, do create something both distinctive and unnerving. But as a whole movie, Joker is held back by its storytelling that’s way too lacking in imagination for such an anarchic character. Joker feels too derivative to really unnerve you or make you think about how…really…we kind of live in a society, don’t we?