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‘Joker’ (review)

Produced by Todd Phillips, Bradley Cooper,
Emma Tillinger Koskoff

Written by Todd Phillips, Scott Silver
Based on Characters by DC Comics
Directed by Todd Phillips
Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro,
Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen

 

What’s worse than a joke that doesn’t land?

One that was endlessly hyped up and lauded before it didn’t land.

Joker has held the public attention for well over a year of controversies with ratings, subject matter, and concern for the safety of moviegoers. To come from such great heights of publicity and land with a barely satisfying thud is a significant letdown.

Joker is a standalone origin story of the most famous of Batman’s nemeses.

Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) just can’t seem to catch a break anywhere in life. He barely ekes out a living as a clown to pay for the apartment he shares with his ill, Thomas-Wayne obsessed mother (Conroy). At every turn, the world is there to bring him down but as his fragile connection to reality snaps, he finds that there is joy in tragedy – especially if he is the one causing it.

A successful character study gives the audience something to engage with and mull over in depth. However, Todd Phillips and Scott Silver barely give enough to keep our eyes open. A series of setbacks and disillusionment are not fleshed out enough to evoke more feeling than a shoulder shrug. Disjointed disappointments do not a mainstream villain make. You are almost left to believe that this is more suited towards a magician than a clown. Otherwise, why were the actors left to create interest out of thin air? Yet from almost nothing to work with, Joaquin Phoenix morphs from clown to mime, making the audience believe that he is holding something up that has heft and gravitas.

Any success the movie has is owed to his commitment to mining everything from a character and disappearing completely into its depths. Phoenix’s nervous, awkward approach to Arthur is more interesting than it should be. He takes us on a physical journey from uncertain, shrinking steps to a grandiose, graceful command of the stage in an end that takes far too long to get to.

This movie could have been shorter, slicker, and more enjoyable on so many fronts, and the lack of editing is a major setback to the story progression. The cello-heavy score begs you to take this movie more seriously than it deserves to from the very beginning, and drags us into a melancholy that even the free-wheeling, violent, and quickly-moving third act can’t overcome. The slow-burn turns to ash in the mouth of a bored audience.

Set in a gritty 1980s Gotham, the allusions to Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy are painfully obvious.

If the words “Gotham” and “Arkham” were not uttered so often this could be any neo-noir Manhattan throwback. In its desire to run so far from the comic book culture that informs this character, they have lost the gripping storytelling that every incarnation of the Joker (yes, even with Jared Leto) brings with it.

Instead, the film dresses up in movies that better handled their sociopaths and the time period, failing to bring us anything new. Even the addition of the Waynes’ seems like a desperate plea. The scenes with Arthur and young Bruce could have easily been cut, but the desire to pull at sentimental heartstrings was apparently to strong. Perhaps they felt that a movie that was spiraling so far from likability could be brought back by tying in one of the most beloved heroes of DC. But we did not come to see the death that we have seen so many times. We came to watch the Joker stand on his own.

This ill-paced, painfully self-important film is blessed to be a stand-alone because it would be bested several times over by many other entries in the comic film canon. It does not feel as if Phillips and Silver believed enough in their main character to look as deeply into his nature as we wanted, but strong performances place at least some substance among the smoke and mirrors.

 

 

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