Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is an impoverished clown-for-hire living in 1981 Gotham City with his ailing, Thomas Wayne-obsessed mother (American Horror Story’s Frances Conroy). Fleck suffers from mental illness and sees a social worker for a variety of medications, and as the film progresses, we see Arthur and his mental illness succumb to society’s decaying sensibilities.
Joker is a dark and gritty character study with unwavering stretches of uneasiness and peppered with moments of brutal violence. Phoenix provides a career-defining performance in his portrayal of the man who would go on to become one of comics’ most infamous villains. Phoenix’s Joker is the fifth we’ve seen on the big screen, and it’s while difficult not to compare Phoenix’s performance with Heath Ledger’s, Phoenix has the advantage of a script that truly analyzes the psyche of the character, rather than just how the character reacts to the environment around him. Ledger deserved the Oscar he received, but the Dark Knight’s script didn’t allow for him to dig deep into the character as Joker’s script does for Phoenix. Comparisons to Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and King of Comedy are inevitable, as they clearly acted as inspiration for Joker. Like De Niro’s characters in those films, Arthur is portrayed as a character with whom the audience can sympathize- to a certain extent. His delve into madness becomes more difficult to justify as the film progresses. Director Todd Phillips and his co-screenwriter Scott Silver have left certain aspects of the story ambiguous and open for interpretation, which I imagine will lead to years of debates.
As good of a film as Joker is, it is not without its flaws. The film is saturated with a constant unease and awkwardness, providing a bulk of the film’s tension. However, both the inevitable evolution of the character of Arthur and the predictability of the climax relieves the movie of that tension at the very moment that it requires it the most. And as much as it pains me to say it, Robert De Niro is the one weak link in the film. De Niro’s Johnny Carson-inspired Murray Franklin is a seasoned talk show host, but if you’ve ever seen De Niro being interviewed on a talk show or presenting at an awards ceremony, you know that it is an arena in which he is not comfortable, and unfortunately, it shows in his performance. Veteran talk show hosts like Carson or Letterman possessed an inherent comfortably and ease, which even De Niro’s incredible acting ability could not replicate. I just never really bought him as a talk show host. Better suited for the role would have been Marc Maron, who appears very briefly as a “Live with Murray Franklin” producer.
Another issue I had with the film is that a central element of the story is the degenerative nature of Gotham society, and how negative life has become for its citizens. However, we really only see this in society’s treatment of Arthur, and we never really see this reflected elsewhere throughout the film. As it eventually evolves into a crucial element of the plot, I would have liked to see it explored a bit more.
While this is wholly a Joker origin film that has no connection to previous (or future) DCU films, I was surprised at how many connections they made to the Batman mythos, including an appearance by Bruce Wayne himself. Even with these nods, by and large, it still stands alone as a compelling character study. That said, I can’t help but wonder if I would have appreciated it as much had it not been a Batman-themed film. We are taken on a journey to which we know the destination. Watching Arthur build to a crescendo that we know to be the iconic villain we are familiar with is the driving force behind the film, and we can project this evolution onto previous incarnations of the character that we have seen before. But what if there is nothing on which to project? Does this odyssey into madness still hold weight if there was no Clown Prince in the end? Would we still care? For most of the movie was able to appreciate it as a character study onto itself, but the film’s end, I was seeing it clearly as a Batman villain origin story. While I suppose that is the point, it makes it difficult to view it without the filter of a fanboy.
Whether Joker is being viewed as a comic book movie or not, it still stands as a film well worth watching, if for no other reason than for Phoenix’s superb performance. I do not doubt that the Academy will reward his efforts with an Oscar nod. It would be interesting if Ledger and Phoenix both receive Oscars for portraying the Joker. Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro are only two actors to ever win separate Oscars for playing the same character. Brando won Best Actor for The Godfather and De Niro won Best Actor in a Supporting Role for The Godfather Part II, both in the role of Vito Corleone. Regardless of how he is treated come Oscar season, this is the role Phoenix was born to play.