It’s safe to say that this isn’t the first review of Joker that you’ve read. Since Todd Phillips’ film debuted at this year’s Venice Film Festival, the internet has been cursed with endless discourse about DC’s standalone Joker origin story. After initial critical praise, Joker has been met with a moral panic about the films use of violence and supposedly sympathetic portrayal of its lead character. Despite the plethora of hot takes and controversies, Joker fails to offer anything deep enough to merit the discussion that surrounds it.
Gotham City, 1981. Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is a struggling stand-up comedian and part-time clown who lives with his mother in a run-down apartment. He idolises the talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert DeNiro) and fantasises about one day achieving a great level of fame and adoration. The only problem is that Arthur suffers from a condition which causes him to laugh uncontrollably in often inappropriate situations, which leads to him becoming socially isolated. As tensions in Gotham grow, a spontaneous act of violence changes Arthur’s life forever.
The weakest aspect of Joker by far is the script. Within minutes, the direction of the film is so clear that at points it feels like a slog to get through. It isn’t interested in taking risks either. At the start of the second act, Joker is wonderfully ambiguous, but by the end of the act, all has been revealed and the answers it gives are the most formulaic ones possible.
Despite the poor script, its central performance brings the film to life. Joaquin Phoenix completely captivates as a man unable to fit into the mad world around him. His skinny body shuffles limply around the grim and dirty streets of Gotham; his physicality evolves throughout the runtime as he becomes emboldened and freed by his horrific new persona. But most importantly, Phoenix nails the laugh, each one showing a different set of emotions yet the same underlying pain. This Joker doesn’t need a ‘damaged’ tattooed on his head to tell you how broken he is.
Joker doesn’t just wear its inspirations on its sleeve, it shoves them in your face. Joker is trying its hardest to be a Martin Scorsese film from the 1970s (who incidentally produced this feature), practically plagiarising Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy whilst failing to capture their nuances and brilliance.
Hildur Guðnadóttir’s masterful score elevates the material, allowing you further into the tragedy of the character. But the score is far from subtle, practically telling you how to feel at points, but it perfectly suits the tone of the film.
Whilst Joker goes out of its way to give Fleck the most sympathetic backstory possible, it never gives his motives or even beliefs the platform some are suggesting. Any political message the film has is messy and unclear, with parallels drawn to today’s climate so superficially, you’d have thought this film was written and directed by the guy that made The Hangover. Oh wait.
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