Joker (2019)

Rating: B

Dir: Todd Phillips
Star: Joaquin Phoenix, Frances Conroy, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz

Well, it certainly took long enough. Getting close to four years after this came out, and became the highest-grossing R-rated film ever. It was quite controversial at the time, with a lot of people spitting hot takes, before it even came out. Normally, I’d be all over such blatant concern trolling, but this time I never got round to it. Then COVID-19 happened, and a comic-book movie upsetting people didn’t seem to matter much. Joker eventually became a fixture on my unmatched list. It’ll be odd now it’s gone. And, as with most such “controversial” movies, the passage of time has left all the extreme opinions, on both ends, looking rather silly. It’s neither a threat to society nor the greatest movie ever made.

It is, however, undeniably impressive that it was directed by the same man who did The Hangover. Two films more different in tone and content, it’s hard to imagine. This is the origin story of the Joker, who began life as Arthur Fleck (Phoenix), a man whose life is largely a failure – he works as a clown, and still lives at home with his mother (Conroy). Small dominoes in his life become bigger ones, eventually reaching a tipping point when he kills three yuppies on the subway, in his clown make-up. This triggers a social movement, with Arthur it’s unwilling face. All he really wants to do is stand-up, though his hero Murray Franklin (De Niro) is far from the person Arthur hopes.

If you think it’s all going to end badly for quite a few people… yeah, no surprises there. But I think what’s interesting is, how people have slapped onto it whatever philosophy they think it has. The reality is considerably more nuanced. We are invited to see the world through Arthur’s eyes, sure. But he’s very definitely depicted as somebody to be pitied, not respected and certainly not emulated. Yes, society certainly isn’t helping him. But Arthur is also a victim of his own poor choices. It’s not your typical comic-book film, that’s for sure. It’s closer to an unholy Martin Scorsese mash-up, combining elements from Taxi Driver and King of Comedy. Yet its mature approach didn’t change the genre either, as some hoped. We’re still getting shitty superhero flicks.

No question, it’s an impressive performance by Phoenix, though I’d still give the nod to Heath Ledger, for sheer, unrelenting unhingedness. Joaquin is perhaps more subtle, this being a slow descent from illness into madness. It’s also a fairly savage indictment of society, which in the version depicted by Phillips has developed into a “me first” state, where people tend not to think about the other person. It felt like it did lose momentum in the middle. There’s a thread about Arthur’s parentage that, while I see the point, does feel dragged out beyond its purpose. Overall though, solid enough and thought-provoking. So definitely a cut above most in the genre, which offer little to engage the brain.