Four years after fellow comedy director Adam McKay made his dramatic debut with The Big Short, veteran comedy director Todd Phillips finally made his foray into drama with Joker, a gritty thriller that is reminiscent of Martin Scorcese’s 1976 film Taxi Driver.
Joaquin Phoenix stars as Arthur Fleck, a mentally unstable man living in poverty with his mother in Gotham City. Due to a number of factors, including his mental health, a violent and chaotic society, a poor work environment and life at home, he finally snaps, murdering three wealthy employees of Wayne Enterprises that causes a rift in society as the poor protest and riot.
Those who were looking for your typical comic book film will be disappointed, Joker isn’t that. Instead, it’s a character drama that shows a man with all of the chips stacked against him crumbling under pressure while simultaneously providing a unique origin story for the iconic comic book villain.
Phoenix, who has rejected multiple offers for roles in the Marvel Cinematic Universe in the past, took the tall task of portraying the Joker and created his own legacy with the character. He was chilling, unnerved and creepy. Throughout the film, you can see the eggshells he is walking on as one bad thing after another piles on top of him. You never know if this is the moment he finally snaps or just what he will do next.
Another thing to love about the film is the attention to detail. Phoenix based the Joker laugh on “videos of people suffering from pathological laughter”. His clown makeup has sharp edges, something clowns avoid as it scares children. The clown makeup was based on John Wayne Gacy, an American serial killer who had a routine as Pogo the Clown (bonus Easter egg: the comedy club Fleck performs in is called Pogos).
Phillips, who has also helmed classic comedies such as Old School and The Hangover, showed he has a flair for the dramatic here as the film was overwhelmingly dark. There wasn’t much comic relief (or sadly, any trademark cameos). though the film does suffer from a bit of pacing.
One of the film’s biggest criticisms is that it is preacy, specifically with class warfare, but I don’t see it. Yes, the social divide is a sideplot to the demise of Fleck, but the movie doesn’t go out of it’s way to stick it in your face or force you to feel one way or the other. Instead, it’s the exact opposite, you either empathize with the hopelessness of the impoverished or you empathize with the elite who are quickly becoming victims of violence.
While I enjoyed the film as a whole, I also don’t see it as the masterpiece everyone has made it out to be pre-release. It’s a comic book film that makes you think, but not one that carries much replay value.
Spoiler alerts below.
One part of the plot I loved about the film was the arc about Thomas Wayne potentially being Fleck’s father, painting the possible picture of Batman being the half-brother of his archnemesis. The culminates in an awkward encounter with Bruce Wayne at Wayne Manor. Instead of the charasmatic Bruce Wayne we are used to seeing on screen, we instead get a socially awkward Bruce who appears to have more in common with Fleck than one would expect. We also, of course, see the death of Thomas and Martha Wayne, which shows two different paths people take after tragedy with Bruce, of course, becoming Batman and fighting crime while Fleck turns into his ultravioent nemesis the Joker.