There are hundreds of new releases each year at the movie theater. When you include international releases, that number skyrockets to the thousands. With so many movies being released around the year in a given year, I still haven't figured out the science behind a movie that sucks all the air out of the room. It certainly feels like "Joker" is that movie this year. "Joker" has been dissected, discussed and put under a microscope well before its release date. The movie is shrouded in controversy, with some people afraid, some people brave and some people have even been seriously at risk going to the theater over the weekend. DC fanboys have been acting like packs of wild hyenas, already throwing words like "masterpiece" and "Oscar-worthy" around this movie. I get it, DC fans are ready to one-up Marvel somehow, validate the comics they love. Even though, when you think about it, what does Marvel have to prove at this point?
Todd Phillips is truly a director of vast talent. I have to imagine he was under enormous pressure to get this thing right. I read that an early draft of the script leaked online and there were rumors that fluttered around that the script was re-written on set. It's clear Phillips did everything he could to make a great movie.
The big question is, did Todd Phillips end up making a great movie?
I think a great movie just gets away from him.
Let's start with the good, because I wouldn't call "Joker" a total wash. Joaquin Phoenix is spectacular. I mean it, he's spectacular. He moves through much of this movie like a jolly ghost, lithe, manic. That wild laugh blasts out of his face like a screeching siren. At times, I actually had a hard time believing it was really Phoenix. His voice isn't the typical Phoenix voice. There are scenes that probably looked weird on the page that Phoenix turns into poetry. There's a moment after some violence where his character just stops and silently begins to dance by himself, its freakish and in another way brilliant to behold.
Now lets talk about the "darkness" of the movie. I came in expecting this movie to be shrouded in darkness. Two of my favorite Joker stories from the comics are "The Killing Joke" and Brian Azzerello's titled "Joker." They are both pretty dark stories right there, Joker has done some pretty horrendous stuff in his comic history. While "Joker" is a very dark experience, I don't think its anything extreme or draining. There are much worse movies out there, full of more depravity than you see here. If someone tries telling you this is the darkest movie ever, they are overselling you.
People are also going to be overselling you if they tell you that the "Joker" is at all a deep movie, or somehow important due to its political and social undertones, if you can even call them that. "Joker" spends lots of times tap-dancing around the important points it really wants to make, then by the end really has nothing to say about them. I am happy to say that "Joker" isn't the big remake of both "Taxi Driver" and "King of Comedy" that I was expecting, but it borrows enough from them that it feels shameless. And it never makes a single significant point about any of its important thoughts.
Warner Brothers maybe tried to polish "Joker" up and try to tell an "important" story about a comic book character, but at the end of the day "Joker" is a comic book adaptation. The Joker is one probably the most well recognized comic book villains of all time, so whether you like it or not, this is a comic book adaptation. As a comic book adaptation, "Joker" is a flop. The older I get, the more hokey to me it feels when some director tries to make a comic book movie an "important film" they fall flat. You make a concept involving people with superpowers dressing in bright costumes fighting each other so self-serious. I get that there are many comic book fans who grew up and they expect the movies to grow up with them, but that doesn't play so well for the movies. Its not silly when a comic book movie is what it is, but when you try to take it too seriously, that's when these movies really begin to look silly. I mean, a news reporter in "Joker" seriously warns the citizens of Gotham about super rats. How am I not supposed to snicker at that?
I am disappointed that "Joker" made the exact mistake I was hoping it wouldn't make. You see Arthur Fleck, the guy Phoenix plays who eventually, maybe becomes The Joker. He's the hero of this movie. Yep, the most infamous villain in all of comic books just happens to be an abused kid growing up who has a severe laughing condition and is bullied by more people than he isn't and he becomes the beacon of the have and have-nots war in Gotham. Once I learned the full premise of this, I had be sure I still watching "Joker." Its such betrayal of the character in the comics, that it doesn't even feel like the character they are adapting. Yes, The Joker's origin in the comics is up in the air, giving the team behind this movie some liberties in plot. The problem is that, of all the directions to go they chose the most cliche-ridden route. You're really going to sell me that Joker, the most random, unpredictable villain ever is just a poor kid who got made fun of and beat up a lot and just needed hugs from his family? That's really the best you could do?
Honestly, I should have walked out of this movie ready to see Batman kick this Joker's ass. I didn't want a hero of the people. The movie should have ended with the whole city on its knees, on notice for an infamous, mysterious adversary. Not some guy who is going to lead the poor to some sort of salvation just because he wants people to notice him.
"Oh but Shawn, this isn't the comic book. Its an Elseworlds! story!" Okay, well, its still derivative, its still pretentious. It's still boring for the most part. If Joker ends up being some kind of antihero, who does Batman have to fight when he gets older? (The weird age difference between the two characters will make for some very weird encounters down the road.) It doesn't matter what Earth in the multiverse this story takes place on. Joker as any kind of hero doesn't work.
Robert De Niro is Robert De Niro. He's always been great and he'll always be great. There are several great actors in this that come and go, not making strong enough impressions. Which is too bad, if you put together a stellar cast, you should use them. The cinematography is stellar in this movie. Gotham definitely feels like a decadent, terrible place to live. "Joker" for better or for worse, will stretch the definition of what comic book movies can or cannot do. I just have a really hard time calling this a Joker movie, this is a character-study about a guy who slowly deteriorates into insanity, and he just happens to like wearing make-up. They can mention the Wayne Family or Arkham all movie long, but it "Joker" is too self-important which makes the movie overall hokey. At the same time, there are moments I expected to see in a "Joker" movie, and those moments are gold. In the end, "Joker" feels like a Frankenstein Monster of sorts, take from that what you will.
FINAL GRADE: C