Joker (2019) Movie Review

Joker is a 2019 American psychological thriller film directed by Todd Phillips, who co-wrote the screenplay with Scott Silver. The film, based on DC Comics characters, stars Joaquin Phoenix as the Joker. Joker provides a possible origin story for the character; set in 1981, it follows Arthur Fleck, a failed stand-up comedian in Gotham City who becomes the Joker after a series of unfortunate events. Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen, Glenn Fleshler, Bill Camp, Shea Whigham, and Marc Maron appear in supporting roles. Joker was produced by Warner Bros. Pictures, DC Films, and Joint Effort in association with Bron Creative and Village Roadshow Pictures, and distributed by Warner Bros.

Phillips conceived Joker in 2016 and wrote the script with Silver throughout 2017. The two were inspired by 1970s character studies and the films of Martin Scorsese, who was initially attached to the project as a producer. The graphic novel Batman: The Killing Joke (1988) was the basis for the premise, but Phillips and Silver otherwise did not look to specific comics for inspiration. Phoenix became attached in February 2018 and was cast that July, while the majority of the cast signed on by August. Principal photography took place in New York City, Jersey City, and Newark, from September to December 2018. Joker is the first live-action theatrical Batman film to receive an R-rating from the Motion Picture Association of America, due to its violent and disturbing content.

Joker premiered at the 76th Venice International Film Festival on August 31, 2019, where it won the Golden Lion, and was released in the United States on October 4, 2019. The film polarized critics; while Phoenix’s performance was praised, the dark tone, portrayal of mental illness, and handling of violence divided responses. Joker also generated concerns of inspiring real-world violence; the movie theater where the 2012 Aurora, Colorado mass shooting occurred during a screening of The Dark Knight Rises, refused to show it. Despite this, the film emerged as a major box office success, setting records for an October release. With a worldwide gross of over $952 million, it became the seventh-highest-grossing film of 2019, as well as the highest-grossing R-rated film of all time.

Plot

In 1981, party clown and aspiring stand-up comedian Arthur Fleck lives with his mother, Penny, in Gotham City. Gotham is rife with crime and unemployment, leaving segments of the population disenfranchised and impoverished. Arthur suffers from a disorder that causes him to laugh at inappropriate times, and depends on social services for medication. After a gang attacks him in an alley, Arthur’s co-worker, Randall, gives him a gun. Arthur invites his neighbor, single mother Sophie, to his stand-up comedy show, and they begin dating.

While entertaining at a children’s hospital, Arthur’s gun falls out of his pocket. Randall lies that Arthur bought the gun himself and Arthur is fired. On the subway, still in his clown makeup, Arthur is beaten by three drunken Wayne Enterprises businessmen; he shoots two in self-defense and executes the third. The murders are condemned by billionaire mayoral candidate Thomas Wayne, who labels those envious of more successful people as “clowns”. Demonstrations against Gotham’s rich begin, with protesters donning clown masks in Arthur’s image. Funding cuts shutter the social service program, leaving Arthur without medication.

Arthur’s comedy show goes poorly; he laughs uncontrollably and has difficulty delivering his jokes. Talk show host Murray Franklin mocks Arthur by showing clips from the routine on his show. Arthur intercepts a letter written by Penny to Thomas, alleging that he is Thomas’s illegitimate son, and berates his mother for hiding the truth. At Wayne Manor, Arthur talks to Thomas’s young son, Bruce, but flees after a scuffle with butler Alfred Pennyworth. Following a visit from two Gotham City Police Department detectives investigating Arthur’s involvement in the train murders, Penny suffers a stroke and is hospitalized.

At a public event, Arthur confronts Thomas, who tells him that Penny is delusional and not his biological mother. In denial, Arthur visits Arkham State Hospital and steals Penny’s case file; the file says Penny adopted Arthur as a baby and allowed her abusive boyfriend to harm them both. Penny alleged that Thomas used his influence to fabricate the adoption and commit her to the asylum to hide their affair. Distraught, Arthur goes to the hospital and kills Penny. He returns home and enters Sophie’s apartment unannounced. Frightened, Sophie tells him to leave; their previous encounters were Arthur’s delusions.

Arthur is invited to appear on Murray’s show due to the unexpected popularity of his comedy routine’s clips. As he prepares, Arthur is visited by Randall and fellow ex-colleague Gary. Arthur murders Randall but leaves Gary unharmed for treating him well in the past. En route to the studio, Arthur is pursued by the two detectives onto a train filled with clown protesters. One detective accidentally shoots a protester and incites a riot, allowing Arthur to escape.

Before the show goes live, Arthur requests that Murray introduce him as Joker, a reference to Murray’s previous mockery. Arthur walks out to applause, but tells morbid jokes, admits he killed the men on the train, and rants about how society abandons the disenfranchised. Arthur shoots Murray and is arrested as riots break out across Gotham. One rioter corners the Wayne family in an alley and murders Thomas and his wife Martha, sparing Bruce. Rioters in an ambulance crash into the police car carrying Arthur and free him. He dances to the cheers of the crowd.

At Arkham, Arthur laughs to himself and tells his psychiatrist she would not understand the joke. He runs from orderlies, leaving a trail of bloodied footprints.

My Pesonal Thoughts

The ending of Todd Phillips Joker is meant to be a joke of sorts on the audience. We’ve just been treated to this entire origin story of Joker. We’ve seen how Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) went from a street clown with a mental illness to the unintentional leader of a riot against Gotham City’s wealthy elites. It’s a story where Arthur is painted at turns as a tragic figure who never received the love and support he needed from his mother, his co-workers, his neighbors, or society as a whole. The film crescendos with unhappy Gotham citizens wearing Joker masks tearing the city up, and one of those rioters kills Thomas and Martha Wayne, thus making way for Bruce Wayne to become Batman. What a twist that Joker was responsible for Batman rather than the other way around!

And then it turns out it’s just a story being told to a psychiatrist in a mental asylum where Arthur Fleck is kept. The film ends with him having killed the psychiatrist (denoted by the bloodstains coming from his footprints) and being chased around the asylum.

So which is it? Is this the true origin story of the Joker or just another yarn spun from a psychotic mind? The answer is that it doesn’t really matter because Phillips wants to have it both ways.

As I noted it my full review, Joker wants credit for touching on hot button issues, but doesn’t know what to do with them. It will take topics like social unrest and mental illness, toss them out, and then just kind of let them sit there. It doesn’t have anything to say about those topics because that would mean standing for something, and if the Joker movie believes in anything then the character can’t be chaotic and nihilistic. But even here, the film is in an awkward middle ground as it tries to explain the Joker’s origins while not trying to invest any reveal with deeper meaning. For example, we learn that Arthur was abused by his mother. He then kills his mother. There are no insights about domestic abuse; it’s just a shocking thing that leads to another shocking thing and boy, if you’re shocked, then the movie must be doing something right, I guess.

This need to have it both ways—Arthur’s story touches on an important issue, but we’re not going to actually explore that issue because that would mean we care about something—reaches its apotheosis at the ending where Phillips basically splits his movie in two because he can’t even settle on what actually matters in this story. Both stories can’t be true, and so they cancel each other out, leaving the film with a shrug rather than a captivating ambiguity.

If Phillips had simply followed through on the origin story aspect, he would have something pretty interesting. In the origin story presented, despite all of its shortcomings, you have an interesting dark mirror of Batman’s story where Joker posits that the line between hero and villain is remarkably thin. If Batman can be an inspiration to the people of Gotham, then why not the Joker? When things are bad, aren’t people just as likely to look towards someone who represents chaos and violence than they are to someone who represents honor and justice? The final touch of having the Joker be responsible for Batman is a nice way of turning the entire mythos on its head. If Phillips’ goal was to upend the superhero movie, concluding the story in this way is a solid way of achieving that goal where we treat the villain’s origin as if he’s the hero.

joker-joaquin-phoenix-face-paint

But Phillips doesn’t have the courage of his convictions, so at the last second, he backs away and says, “Well, maybe this is all concocted by the Joker and none of this happened.” There are a few hints that Joker is an “unreliable narrator” with the brief shot of him banging his head against the glass in the mental asylum and the reveal that his neighbor Sophie (Zazie Beetz) was never really his girlfriend. But because the movie is never framed in such a way that Arthur is our narrator in the first place, the final scene feels like a massive cop out that then fails to make any sense.

If the entire movie, or even parts of it, are just Joker making things up, then he has to have access to things he couldn’t have known, most notably, the origin of Batman. I suppose you could argue that Joker just knows that Thomas Wayne and his wife went into an alley and got murdered in front of their son, but once again, this is a film that can’t bridge the gap between chaotic nihilism and meaningful payoff. Either Thomas Wayne still matters to Arthur and he needs to include this kind of comeuppance in the story, or it’s just a random thing that happened because Joker tipped Gotham into full-blown madness. Either way, Phillips and co-writer Scott Silver are trying to have their cake and eat it too. “The Joker is responsible for Batman!” but also, “lol nothing matters.”

The final scene is meant to make you question everything that came before, but to what end? The direction is all over the place so at some points Arthur is sympathetic and at some points he’s a monster and so simply providing a twist doesn’t make us rethink everything that came before. All the final scene does is remind us that you can’t trust the Joker (assuming that Arthur is even the Joker and not just a mental patient obsessed with murderous clowns), which, yeah, we were already there. Rather than drawing the audience in further, Phillips once again undermines his narrative with a lack of follow-through and substance. If you want to make a movie about how Joker is a dark mirror of Batman, make that movie. If you want to make a movie about how a violent psychotic can’t be trusted to tell his own story, make that movie. But by trying to make both, Phillips ends up making nothing.

I will rate this Movie 9/10.

Directed byTodd Phillips
Produced by Todd Phillips Bradley Cooper Emma Tillinger Koskoff
Written by Todd Phillips Scott Silver
Based onCharacters
by DC Comics
StarringJoaquin Phoenix
Music byHildur Guðnadóttir
CinematographyLawrence Sher
Edited byJeff Groth
Production
companies
Warner Bros. Pictures DC Films Joint Effort Bron Creative Village Roadshow Pictures
Distributed byWarner Bros. Pictures
Release date August 31, 2019 (Venice) October 4, 2019 (United States)
Running time122 minutes
CountryUnited States
LanguageEnglish
Budget$55–70 million
Box office$952.2 million

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