I was hoping for a clown scarier than Pennywise and Joker doesn’t disappoint. Even better, Arthur Fleck is very layered and not strictly eating or killing people. The film, more grounded than that, thankfully, was under attack before release but controversy over fears of violent outbursts won’t keep you from enjoying every frame.

Origin Story

Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is a sign-twirling clown for an agency in Gotham City that loans performers to closing businesses and children’s hospitals. Life literally beats him down and Gotham is only getting crazier. This isn’t good for his fragile psyche, burdened as it is by his struggles and the responsibility of caring for his ailing mom (Frances Conroy).

Arthur tries to turn it all around with a new career, stand-up comedy, and a buoying love interest (Zazie Beetz). He gets booked in a club and on the late-night show hosted by his hero Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), but a class revolution is brewing in Gotham due to Arthur’s general bad luck and chance murderous actions.

Writer-director Todd Phillips is clear Joker is not based on any comic continuity. That doesn’t mean it fails to harbor a tinge of its source. Aside from the obvious similarities to aspects of The Killing Joke and Dark Knight Returns, Phillips borrows familiar beats from other movies and interpretations. The whole scenario of Joker on a talk show reminds me of his portion of the Animated Series episode Almost Got ‘Im.

Derivative as that sounds, the approach overall is fresh and the star is a big reason why.

The Master

It’s true: Joaquin Phoenix owns this movie. Arthur Fleck, a Joker by any other name, is as complex as his namesake and Phoenix delivers in striking the right balance. Fleck is sympathetic through the first half and evolves into a persona so tortured inside and unhinged by the end, rooting for him is impossible.

That’s no knock against Phoenix – he brings his unique quirks, including that laugh, to make his own idealized Joker. And, oh, the laugh! It will go down with Jack Nicholson’s, Mark Hamill’s, and Heath Ledger’s. You won’t soon forget it. 

Furthermore, Phoenix does what no one has before: turn Joker’s laugh into a source of pain and inconvenience. You probably know by now Fleck has a condition that makes him laugh hysterically and uncontrollably when he is nervous. Phoenix plays that to the hilt, cackling until it hurts visibly. I felt bad for him and cringed a little – because of a laugh!

All the Other Wise Guys

Joaquin Phoenix steals the show and occupies every single scene but he isn’t without solid backup.

A few complain Robert De Niro isn’t in much of Joker but he has a strong presence throughout. He’s also a pretty good talk-show host.

Everyone’s favorite anti-nerd child Marc Maron can be proud he’s not in a childish movie, based as it is on comic characters, and can share a scene with both De Niro and Phoenix. But, fortunately, or unfortunately, depending on if you agree with his tirades, Maron doesn’t do much at all.

Neither does Zazie Beetz whose part in the movie is overhyped coming off Deadpool 2 and disavowed later on as a delusion – and there are many.

Hungover War Dog

Todd Phillips effects a successful switch to character drama from comedy. Going in tabula rasa, you would never guess he was that kind of filmmaker. In a way, Joker – about a mentally ill comedian who snaps and kills people who walk over him – is his middle finger to the woke culture that made him leave his old world behind.

And he delivers the message with such grace. Dance numbers complemented by a weird, distorted cello and other scenes where Phoenix is the only one on-screen are mesmerizing. Each shot is heavily detailed and steady too, hardly ever disorienting and never running out of things surrounding Arthur for the audience to pick up on.

Violence in Movies and Sex on TV

Here comes what every harsh critic is overreacting to – the violence. Like these people have never seen an R-rated movie or any horror offering out this year? While there are bursts of violence and gore, including for argument’s sake a bloody nose, you can count them on one hand.

Joker is disturbing but mostly due to atmosphere and a spirit of pessimism. Its content pales in comparison to Robocop, Friday the 13th, the Saw franchise, and anything else you can name. If you are someone who watched, say, Bone Tomahawk, you’ve been laughing this whole time at the media attention Joker gets.

Verdict

Joker is the quintessence of the “villain story” idea, the one by which everything that comes after should be measured. Todd Phillips pulls together a comic book premise into a real-world setting and gives it a nostalgic aura and graphic-novel prestige (acting as if there is a real distinction between comics and graphic novels).

Are the spoilers spot on? Some are and some aren’t. It doesn’t detract from the experience.

Is Joker the movie of the year? No, that honor belongs to Godzilla: King of the Monsters. But is Joker Oscar-worthy in other categories, such as Best Actor or Director? Oh, yeah! It’s a fine origin story – in one universe – for a character shrouded in mystery.

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Joker Review: Does It Have a Punchline Worth Getting?
Pros
  • Joaquin Phoenix in the performance of the year.
  • Todd Phillips’ direction.
  • The story brings out the best in Batman lore for a realistic setting and skillful cinematography.
Cons
  • Not enough Zazie Beetz.
  • Shoehorns in part of Batman’s origin which it doesn’t need and would be better without. 
7Overall Score
Reader Rating: (5 Votes)
8.4