Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Brett Cullen and Frances Conroy
Directed by: Todd Phillips
Synopsis: Arthur Fleck is an aspiring comedian who is struggling to get an opportunity and is constantly hamstrung by his crushing day-to-day life. When opportunity arises after secrets of his parentage are revealed, Arthur decides to really make the most of his moment in the spotlight.
The films of Todd Phillips in the past have given me hours upon hours of enjoyment. I’ve laughed at and quoted the likes of Old School and The Hangover Trilogy more times than I can remember. So it shouldn’t be surprising, and it shouldn’t be seen as a hindrance to Joker, that this director who’s excelled at providing entertainment value in the past has nailed it making his audience utterly depressed. Honestly, with the exception of the film’s third act where Fleck – at this point going by Joker – sits on Murray Franklin’s talk show (the way Phoenix emphasises “Murray” is terrific) there’s very few moments of this one that I can say I enjoyed.
I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing either. Phillips set a goal of showing Fleck’s complete decline and he couldn’t have done that by giving us scenes that made us smile or laugh until our bellies ached. We had to be uncomfortable watching this, otherwise the film falls flat on its face and Phillips’ homage to Scorsese’s The King of Comedy would likely have been more of a blatant rip-off. In regards to The King of Comedy, as you might expect Phillips fails to create as compelling ambiguity – the twist reveal involving Arthur’s love interest Sophie (Beetz) isn’t anywhere near as good as Rupert’s and Rita’s in Scorsese’s 1982 black comedy film. Mind, if you’re someone who loves to theorise, you could always believe the ambiguous ending for Rupert Pupkin in Comedy somehow resulted in the creation of Murray Franklin.
What Joker does have that The King of Comedy doesn’t is a genuinely stupendous acting performance. De Niro was very good in 1982 – and he’s good here no doubt about it – but Joaquin Phoenix really is on another level. We all know he’s nailed on for Best Actor this Sunday courtesy of his performance and his body transformation for the role, and if he doesn’t get it there really is a problem with The Academy’s choosing. I didn’t watch this and think like many others have that Joker‘s simply a social commentary on mental health, but because of just how damn great Phoenix is at portraying a broken man cast off by society, you can’t fault people for thinking that way. I’m also sure Arthur Fleck would be played just as well by Phoenix without his mother Penny being included in the film, but some props should be given to Frances Conroy who herself aces the role of being physically and mentally ill.
Going into watching the only concern I had after watching several stellar trailers and reading many hype-filled comments and reviews on Phoenix’s acting and the film’s premise, was the teased involvement of Thomas Wayne and, yep, another Batman origin story. Fortunately the subplot with Wayne was delivered so well that they actually could’ve done a lot more with it. The scene where Arthur interacts with a young Bruce was excellently filmed and was before the Joker/Murray interview the film’s best scene because of the history between the two and potential written and unwritten future of the two characters. And while we did see another adaptation of the deaths of Thomas and Martha Wayne, I’ll admit that the way in which it was built up was nicely done and it definitely had reason to be in the film, in contrast to the way it was shoved into Batman vs Superman, for example.
Joker sees itself leading the nominations at this Sunday’s Academy Awards with eleven and alongside Phoenix’s Best Actor it will most likely find itself earning a couple of Oscars. Best Picture shouldn’t be expected as that will go to current favourite 1917 or my choice to win, Parasite, but with that being said this one could easily win Awards for Best Sound and Best Makeup and Hairstyling. If it doesn’t and Phoenix is the one winner out of eleven? Well as Frank Sinatra sings so often in this film, that’s life.