Saturday, 5 October 2019

Review: Joker

Joker (spoilers in the footnotes)
Cert: 15 / 122 mins / Dir. Todd Phillips / Trailer

It's not supposed to be an easy-ride. Just keep that in mind as you sit down to watch the story of a middle-aged man, single but living with his elderly mother in a run down apartment block as he ekes out an existence as a jobbing clown in a city which has forgotten how to laugh. As he's taken for granted, mocked, ignored and assaulted on a daily basis. As he has neither the social nor the practical skills to pursue his dream of being a standup comedian, evoking only laughs of pity rather than knowing camaraderie. As it's not one thing which tips him over the edge, like the timings of a fast food outlet breakfast menu, but a succession of bad decisions and worse reactions that corner him and seem to offer only one logical way out. As that involves becoming one of the most notorious villains of comic culture, by which bloodsoaked point he's long past trying to make other people happy. It's not supposed to be an easy ride.


Which is just as well, really. Todd Phillips' highly anticipated Joker movie is very good but is also bloody hard work, for both the right and wrong reasons. Charting the downfall of Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), it's a snapshot of crisis which plays as well to today's time as its 1981 setting. And don't let that year fool you, the sets, wardrobe, makeup and titles have a delicious 1970s vibe, as does Lawrence Sher's cinematography. His desaturated eye flits from the confines of Fleck's claustrophobic apartment to voyeuristic tracking shots across the street as he makes his way through Gotham's urban jungle. This is a city which doesn't know the decade has ticked over.

There are references to wider DC lore (to the point where even a Marvel-kid like me picked them up), but the movie is largely self-contained. Comparisons are inevitable of course, and tonally Phoenix is perhaps the closest to the Nolan/Ledger Joker, with the sense of deranged threat every bit as palpable when the character is pinned down. Of course that earlier performance was by definition more mysterious, his backstory shifting every time he spoke to someone new. There's no such ambiguity here. Phillips wants to (and does) explain every excruciating beat of Arthur Fleck's fall between the cracks. And while Joaquin's hypnotic performance adds intrigue to the characterisation, there's still no real Mystery™.


But it's the performances that matter here, rather than adherence to any previous timeline. Phoenix leads brilliantly as usual, although we'd expect nothing less at this point. And while there are strong supporting turns from Robert De Niro as talk show host Murray Franklin, Zazie Beets as Arthur's neighbour Sophie and Frances Conroy as his mother Penny, everyone else is firmly in second-place here*1. At a hair over two hours, the film is tight but never rushed. And with a full stage to himself, Phoenix manages what Leto couldn't and redefines the character properly. This new iteration carries all the critical DNA of the Joker, while still being its own thing.

The story is underscored by a fantastically mournful score from Hildur Guðnadóttir and a darkly wry jukebox soundtrack*2. The film is definitely over-egged in places but Phillips paints his scenes perfectly, and it's an overdue lesson to others in the DC-verse insisting that visual and thematic darkness are automatically the same thing. Although the director is by no means unaware of his successes here, and spends the last ten minutes of the movie cruising past a swathe of natural end-points, desperate to wring every last drop out of his subject with patience-testing curtain calls (confirmation: there's no bonus content during or after the credits).


This wants to be the Logan of DC, and in many ways it succeeds. But while there are certainly plenty of things working in Joker's favour, I don't think it'll become the classic it's being lauded as in some quarters. When the hype has died down, we'll be left with a damned solid love letter to 70s noir cinema, viewed through the socio-political lens of 2019. Phillips has assembled this well, but it's too reliant on the movies it homages to be truly groundbreaking.

Joker often feels like it's Phillips making a statement rather than telling a story. And it's a statement which will be taken out of context by some*3. And it really shouldn't be, but not everyone can read in subtext and there are some genies you just can't put back in the bottle...

So, what sort of thing is it similar to?
This looks like The French Connection and feels like The King Of Comedy meets You Were Never Really Here, with maybe just a dash of Watchmen (or a healthy shot of Alan Moore, certainly).

It's pretty bleak

Is it worth paying cinema-prices to see?
It is.

Is it worth hunting out on DVD, Blu-ray or streaming, though?
It is.

Is this the best work of the cast or director?
Best? Probably not.
'Up there'? Definitely

Will we disagree about this film in a pub?
Given the movie's provocative nature and mixed critical reaction, that's probably not unlikely.

Is there a Wilhelm Scream in it?
Not that I heard.

Yeah but what's the Star Wars connection?
Level 2: Joaquin Phoenix is in this, and he was in The Sisters Brothers with Riz 'Bodhi Rook' Ahmed.

And if I HAD to put a number on it…

*1 Interesting casting point: A young Bruce Wayne is shown here in a couple of scenes, played by Dante Pereira-Olson. Dante also starred in You Were Never Really Here where he was the childhood iteration of Joaquin Phoenix's character, Joe. So while this movie toys with the long-recurring theme that Batman and the Joker are two sides of the same coin, that's done with performers who have previously played the same person in the same film, again with a generational divide between innocence and clinical psychoticism. It's a small point which is unlikely to be picked up in the cinema, but adds to the architecture of the film. Lovely stuff. [ BACK ]

*2 At one point there's been a production meeting in which someone has asked "So can we use Gary Glitter on the soundtrack?", and it appears that someone else has replied "Yes. Yes, that is entirely in keeping with the vision of this piece. Do that." Er, okay mate. [ BACK ]

*3 Although at least it's a statement which stands up to some scrutiny, unlike some of the utter bollocks Phillips has come out with on the movie's promotional-trail. Ho-hum. [ BACK ]

• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
• Yen's blog contains harsh language and even harsher notions of propriety. Reader discretion is advised.
• This is a personal blog. The views and opinions expressed here represent my own thoughts (at the time of writing) and not those of the people, institutions or organisations that I may or may not be related with unless stated explicitly.

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