Joker (2019)

My local papers gave Joker 2.5/5. Yet, this is now ranked #9 on IMDb’s list of “top rated movies” barely a week after the movie opened. This has to be a case of the Emperor’s New Clothes phenomenon. I tempered my expectations as I stepped into the cinema and I walked out feeling strangely ambivalent. What should have been a rousing experience turned out to be curiously unsatisfying, like having an itch somewhere that I couldn’t reach.

Director and co-writer Todd Phillips’ Joker is a stand-alone story on the iconic Prince of Crime. It is an origin story of how one Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a clown-for-hire by day and aspiring stand-up comic at night, becomes the super-villain of Gotham City, the arch nemesis of Batman. Arthur’s problem is that he just isn’t funny. That’s the death knell for a wannabe clown and comedian, and if he is going down the road to hell, he isn’t going alone.

Following Cesar Romero, Jack Nicholson, Heath Ledger and Jared Leto, Joaquin Phoenix is the latest actor to don the Joker makeup and costume on the big screen. Believe the hype… Phoenix bleeds and breathes the Joker. The man shed 24 kilograms and perfected a pathologically maniacal laughter to play the epochal role. The characterisation takes its cue from today’s societal ills and transposed them to a city in the 70s rotten to the core. It is a risky and balls-to-the-wall take on the villain in that the movie never for one second humanises him to a point where you would feel sympathy for him, at least for me. His performance is so singularly incredible that everyone else fades into the peripheral.

Phillips’ painting of Gotham City is a reflection of today’s fractured global cities. Apathy rules, anti-establishment culture is a way of life and nihilism runs in the blood. I do feel it is a gross hyperbole of the current world because not a single good soul exists in the movie. Into this cruel world Fleck is thrust head first, but he exists in the whole movie as a reactive person to the violence all around him. He allows the world to turn him inside out and by the end he becomes the symbol of the new renaissance. I am not sure I want to look deeper into the meaning of it all; I am scared to find out it is just that shallow.

Fleck’s character is already languishing at the rim of the bottomless hole of madness from the start and a little of exposition later on will complete his back story. I take nothing away from Phoenix’s performance which is simply jaw-dropping. I think I had nightmares of him contorting himself in weird angles. When the tipping point finally comes, you will feel in your bones he becomes the Joker.

My issue is that I find the script too heavy on one side – it only wants to show one view in that the world sucks. If you see it as a character study of a person gradually embracing his madness it works. If you are seeing it as a social commentary good luck trying to find meaning. Someone told me this is a psychological thriller, but I must have missed the memo on that. There is little by way of thriller here because being schooled all these years by the comics, I already know what will transpire. Good storytelling would be able to mask everything and give me fresh eyes to see Fleck’s horrific journey. When the uber-violence hits its stride, I did not feel release or satisfaction.

I must sound like the 1 percent that hated the movie. I don’t. There are many aspects that are just sublime on top of Phoenix’s take on the iconic villain. How the story deftly situates itself within the Batman mythology is beautiful. Watch out for a scene featuring the first meeting between Joker and Bruce Wayne that is just surreal. The sense of place and time is strong. The soundscape, choice of songs and colour grading, all add to an exquisitely dark and bleak film. I can appreciate this is a brave take on one of the most memorable villains, but for me Joker felt like a one act story dragged on for 2 hours.

3.5 / 5

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