Joaquin Phoenix puts a unique, dramatic spin on Batman’s nemesis in Todd Phillips new movie Joker.
Joker, director Todd Phillips’ twisted, dramatic take on the comic book movie, is already one of the most talked about films of the year - generating rave reviews and worried headlines due to its transformation of Batman’s most famous nemesis into a deeply troubled, violent loner.
Its subject is Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a mentally ill man caring for his elderly mother (Frances Conroy) in what appears to be early 1980s Gotham.
In between trips to see his social worker, Arthur struggles to hold down a job as a clown-for-hire, not helped by a condition that means he involuntarily breaks into uncontrollable laughter.
Bullied and beaten down, and with his aspirations of a comedy career hamstrung by the fact he cannot deliver a punchline, Arthur’s life seems hopeless, especially after he loses his job by bringing a gun to a gig at a children’s hospital.
However, after he turns the firearm on a trio of obnoxious yuppies who assault him on a metro train, he, or rather his clown guise, becomes the face of an Anonymous-style revolutionary movement.
The early hype around Joker has been accompanied by controversy surrounding its subject matter.
It is understandable in 2019, an age in which America appears flooded by heavily armed misfits and warring Internet thinkpieces, but misplaced.
Phillips manages to walk the fine line between exploration and glorification. Yes, there are artful shots of Arthur/Joker revelling in his new violent persona, an ugly duckling-turned-murderous swan, but the film punches up rather than down.
Its target is an unforgiving society that has repeatedly failed a mentally ill man - from billionaire turned, dare we say, Trump-like politician, Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), to showbiz bookers intent on mockery, cruel workmates, feral youths, and even his own mother.
Joker is less a call to arms for other socially inadequate males to don their own clown make-up and more an attempt at a warning that a society that prizes success, punishes failure, and doesn’t care for its Arthurs will perpetuate a cycle of abuse and violence.
Much of the credit for getting this difficult balance right must go to Phoenix - who skillfully portrays his character as both sympathetic and wretched.
In close-up shots, you can see the facial contortions of an anguished mind - one that can see happiness amid the squalor - such as in his next door neighbour (Zazie Beetz) and her daughter - but cannot feel it.
In others, we can see the bones beneath his wraith-like figure as the scars of a genuinely miserable life.
As the Joker, meanwhile, he is plausibly unhinged - playing Arthur as a manic actor whose eyes light up having finally found a role people want him to play.
Yet for all this, Joker lacks the depth of the films that are transparently its inspiration - Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, even Sidney Lumet’s Network.
It’s partly because we essentially know the central character’s journey after seeing the poster.
Unlike Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle, we know there’s no chance of him pulling back, or in the case of The King of Comedy’s Rupert Pupkin, of remaining in squalid obscurity.
Both, of course, were played by Robert De Niro, who, in a neat bit of meta-casting, plays Murray Franklin, a chat show host whose indifference to exploiting Arthur’s misplaced comic aspirations pushes him towards both recognition and oblivion.
In addition, though, it’s because outside of Phoenix’s mesmerising depiction of Arthur’s troubled mind, there’s a shallowness to the film.
The rotting rubbish of Gotham and its residents’ thirst for rebellion, is a backdrop that borrows so much from well-worn film and cultural imagery that it fails to convince as a living, breathing metropolis whose residents really have to deal with the film’s stated themes of inequality, injustice, and alienation.
Without this depth, we are really here for Phoenix’s performance. It’s a triumph - but one that makes for a dark cinematic experience, and one that isn’t surrounded by the wit and humanity of the films that inspired it - a fact exemplified by the fact that De Niro’s Franklin is a far less fleshed out character than Jerry Lee Lewis’ similar role in The King of Comedy.
All this means that Joker is a must-see movie this autumn for Phoenix alone, but one that doesn’t quite hit the heights of the classic auteur-driven movies it aspires to be.
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