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Joker (A Movie Review)

Updated: Nov 7, 2023


JOKER (2019)

Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen, Bill Camp, Shea Whigham, Glenn Fleshler, Leigh Gill, Josh Pais, Rocco Luna, Marc Maron, Sondra James, Murphy Guyer, Douglas Hodge, Dante Pereira-Olson, Carrie Louise Putrello, Sharon Washington, Hannah Gross, Brian Tyree Henry and Bryan Callen.

Screenplay by Todd Phillips & Scott Silver.

Directed by Todd Phillips.

Distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures. 122 minutes. Rated R.

Wow. Just wow.

The Batman supervillain Joker has been portrayed in many ways over the decades. He has been played as quietly, spookily malevolent (Heath Ledger). He has been played as broadly over-the-top crazy and evil (Jack Nicholson). He’s been played as campily villainous (Cesar Romero). He’s been played as dementedly wicked (Mark Hamill in voiceovers.) He’s been played as an angry, stoned glam rocker (Jared Leto). He has been played many other ways by many other actors in many other mediums.

However, I don’t think Joker has ever before been played as a sad, pathetic, miserable loser.

I never thought a performance as Joker would ever make me nostalgic for Leto’s offbeat method-acting take on the role in Suicide Squad. But congratulations Todd Phillips and Joaquin Phoenix, you have made perhaps the most completely unlikable – and certainly most unsympathetic – Joker in the character’s long, storied history.

I don’t take any joy in saying that. I went into Joker with high hopes. I even overlooked (or at least tried to ignore) the concern I had about the fact that the film was written and directed by the guy behind the Hangover films. I really wanted – and expected – to like it.

But, wow, Joker was hard to sit through.

Joker is just basically like an hour and a half of life taking a massive dump on an obviously mentally ill man before he finally snaps in the last half hour. (It felt more like at least four hours, though.)

This isn’t entertaining. It isn’t even darkly illustrative. It’s just uncomfortable.

It is an origin story, taking place in Gotham City – though it was obviously filmed in New York – in the late 1970s or early 1980s (though oddly, most of the music is from the 1930s or 1940s or 1950s).

Arthur Fleck is obviously in massive need of some help from the first time we see him, sitting through a session with a social worker. As we watch life beating him down – both mentally and physically – and see his sanity slipping farther and farther, you can’t help but feel sorry for the poor guy.

Joker has been known to inspire many complicated emotional reactions. Pity has never really been one of them.

However, here we are, watching the guy morph into a super-villain simply because people are mean to him and because life is hard. Oh yeah, and apparently because there is a garbage strike going on and a new species of “super rats” roaming the streets.

Let’s face it, there are certain characters in fiction that really don’t need a back story. Their malevolent evil should be a natural fact of life – like birds flying and fish swimming. Giving Joker a back story – making him a pathetic mama’s boy who wants to make people happy but can’t make it as a clown or as a comedian – it just diminishes him. As does making him a sad stalker type trying to attract the attention of the cute young mother down the hall but has no real social skills. And making him a guy who wants desperately to be a stand-up comic but has no talent at it. (Though, honestly, he is no worse at it than any of the other several comics shown in the movie – in fact the two jokes he makes that were most mocked in the film were not great, but actually they were not all that bad.)

Then they bring in Robert De Niro to play a story arc that is all too reminiscent of De Niro’s much better 1983 film, The King of Comedy – if Rupert Pupkin was a deranged, anorexic clown. Of course, De Niro has been flipped into the older role in that storyline (which was played by Jerry Lewis in King), a Johnny-Carson-lite talk-show host who has the mentally unstable “comedian” take over his show with uncomfortable results.

And, geez, did we have to sit through yet another recreation of the Batman origin story, in which young Bruce Wayne must watch as his parents are shot to death in front of him in a back alley of Gotham City? How many times are they going to film variations of that same over-familiar scene?

After the massively dark series of films from the DC Universe, in the last few years the films have allowed a little daylight and humor in things like Wonder Woman, Aquaman and the way under-rated Shazam! The curtains have been slammed closed with Joker, which is just as morose and off-putting as things like Man of Steel, Batman v. Superman and Justice League.

Joker pretty much undoes all the positive steps DC has been making to be more competitive with the more varied Marvel Comic Universe. It looks like Joker may being made as part of a series of films exploring the career and psyche of arguably the most beloved villain in comic books. I hope if they keep it up, they do a better job of it than this.

Better yet, shelf the Joker until the next Batman series inevitably appears. (Rumor has it that Robert Pattinson may be next in line for the cowl.) Joker works better as a malevolent supporting character than as the focus of his own film.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2019 All rights reserved. Posted: October 4, 2019.


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