Joker movie review: Joaquin Phoenix mesmerises in Todd Phillips' entertaining but problematic treatment
It seems like Joker is less an individual film and more an angry response to the drubbing the character received in the previous DCEU film.
It seems like Joker is less an individual film and more an angry response to the drubbing the character received in the previous DCEU film. It is clear that everyone involved in the film decided to make a movie so highbrow that it would create some buzz at the Oscars. To some extent, the intent works in the film’s favour, and Joker indeed is a worthwhile entertaining experience in the cinemas – if you ignore its problematic politics, juvenile messaging and cringe-inducing lack of subtlety.
Joker, as you may already know, is directed by Todd Phillips of the Hangover franchise but let’s first get something out of the way. It is unfair to criticise a storyteller for having told certain kinds of stories – just look at Craig Mazin’s work in Chernobyl as opposed to his filmography which consists of a Scary Movie sequel. Now that we have cleared Phillips of any inherent lack of understanding of arthouse cinema, it must be noted that the film does contain a lack of firm grasp on the finer details by bombardment of over explanation and underlining. Phillips does showcase, over and over again, that he has no clue how to handle complex emotions and how to distill them into cinematic moments that connect with audiences above the age of fifteen.
Joaquin Phoenix, in yet another mesmerising performance, grabs the highest notes of both Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver and Rupert Pupkin in The King of Comedy. I’d be lying if I tell you it isn’t a successful cocktail – Phoenix holds us by the balls with everything that he does, rising far above the material. Of course his turn does not have the shock value of Heath Ledger’s Joker but it’s a nuanced performance that distinguishes itself from the stereotypical aspects of Hollywood psychopaths.
The treatment of the Joker character, however, is stereotypical as hell, with Phillips lazily ticking off all the manipulative boxes of generating sympathy for the central character. In fact, it is not the hackneyed aspects of the character that irk – lots of movies have clichés put to good use - but the cinematic treatment they get that make you wish for better packaging. For example, there is a moment in the film where the dynamic between two characters is subtly and beautifully revealed, only to follow up this amazing moment with a montage of horrendous flashbacks that undermine any semblance of intricacy and refinement. The aforementioned sympathy angle is also executed with a flashback in which the grown up Joker inserts himself as a ghost in the past where his mommy issues are being hammered out. It’s odd and clearly indicative of Phillips’ lack of skill as a dramatic director.
There’s also the issue of shoehorning Batman into this story – which is also done in the most inelegant possible manner, yet again dragging us into the pits of a ‘Martha’ moment because apparently the stakes being personal are somehow more potent. The biggest issue, however, is the film’s ugly attempts to address issues like inequality, cultism and neglect. It is the equivalent of making a public speech about poverty by parading a dozen homeless people and dangling carrots in front of their hungry mouths in order to receive cheers from the audiences. In a cinematic universe that constantly warns us against worshipping false heroes, Joker’s representation comes across as insincere.
So what’s good about this film, you ask? There are individual moments of brilliance, like a scene in a train which culminates in shocking violence and is absorbing mainly because it is one of the few times Phillips lets the visuals do all the talking. The production design and cinematography do a good job of recreating the hellscape of New York from Scorsese’s movies. Robert De Niro has a fun cameo that sort of bookends his Rupert Pupkin role, especially since the film is a slavish remake of The King of Comedy. More importantly, if you have a deep love for the Joker character either through cinema or comics, you’ll be happy with the amount of screen time he gets in the film seeing as he’s present in every single scene here. Just keep your expectations in check and not be swayed by the festival buzz, and you’ll find yourselves entertained by the manipulative chaos on display.
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