Friday, October 4, 2019

Joker - Review

Since the film debuted a few short weeks ago across the Atlantic, Joker has been the subject of numerous debates and conversations about the insensitive nature of the film, or the oversensitive modern viewers, depending on which side you fall on. Questions of message and real life implications are not new to films with evil characters at the forefront, it might as well be a guarantee these days, but in those instances, the films actually felt like they had something worthwhile to say.

Forever alone in a crowd, failed comedian Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) seeks connection as he walks the streets of Gotham City. Arthur wears two masks -- the one he paints for his day job as a clown, and the guise he projects in a futile attempt to feel like he's part of the world around him. Isolated, bullied and disregarded by society, Fleck begins a slow descent into madness as he transforms into the criminal mastermind known as the Joker.

At the forefront of the praise, from both people who loved and hated the overall film, is Joaquin Phoenix. As if there was any doubt that he is currently one of the best actors working in Hollywood today, Phoenix turns in a twisted and enigmatic performance for the ages. It’s dark, but never over the top, a consequence of a film trying so desperately to not be a story about a comic book super villain in clown makeup. Nevertheless, Phoenix suits the role and turns in a masterclass performance that’s destined to be left out by the Academy when the time comes and cause an uproar.

While Phoenix is impeccable behind the painted face of Joker, the character he is playing only works in the gritty and drab world of a 70’s era Gotham City. From a production design standpoint, Joker is a fairly well crafted film from top to bottom, all elevated by a tremendous score (and one of my personal picks for best of the year) from Hildur Guðnadóttir. The edge pieces are there for a truly special film to be constructed, it’s just the important middle section that is completely the wrong fit.

Joker is a textbook case of wanting to have your cake and eat it too. Director and writer Todd Phillips, along with fellow writer Scott Silver, clearly have an affection for films that have come before in the long history of damaged individuals wreaking havoc on society (i.e. Taxi Driver), and Joker offers them a chance to make a movie along those lines, even if it doesn’t make sense for the character everyone already knows.

Is it all an attempt to flip the comic book movie on its head and present the dark mirror of the Caped Crusader in a new way? Or is it all the concoction of a madman? Phillips doesn’t choose either way, nixing any potential to get political or take a stance by placing seeds of doubt to the legitimacy of the whole story. Is there something to say about mental illness and the way the world handles it? Maybe, but Phillips isn’t interested in actually tackling any of that, getting to the homicidal rampage and chaos is far more important. It’s not inherently a bad thing, but movies aren’t made in a vacuum. Audiences know the Joker, they know who he will become, and it’s awfully hard to be sympathetic to the future murderous Clown Prince of Crime.

Joker is undoubtedly a well-crafted movie from a visual perspective, and the music choices, both the score and songs, are really well utilized and only serve to elevate the film. A ridiculously enthralling turn from Phoenix will be a worthwhile draw for many as well, even if he seems destined to face scrutiny for the remainder of awards season. Where the film falters is in its most important hurdle: telling an origin story for a character famous for not actually having one. Phillips know what film he wants to make, but is too afraid to tackle the issues he presents, and what’s left is a mishmash of shock-value beats that amount to little more than an average look at a man’s descent into madness. Oh and he just happens to look like that comic book character you’ve seen before.

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