Reel Reviews | Joker

by Charles Kirkland Jr.

Todd Phillips elicits a little sympathy for the devil as a super-villain gets a bold, super- inventive backstory as Joaquin Phoenix takes on the titular role, Joker.

Arthur Fleck is not exactly a regular guy in Gotham City. He lives with and takes care of his mother. He is employed as a clown where he works twirling signs and entertaining sick children. He suffers from a neurological condition which makes him laugh almost uncontrollably at inappropriate moments. Unfortunately, Fleck finds himself in more and more inappropriate and sometimes downright painful situations. After one deadly moment in the subway, Fleck’s life is changed forever.

Written by Todd Phillips (Road Trip, Due Date, War Dogs) and Scott Silver (8 Mile, The Finest Hours) and directed by Phillips, Joker stars Phoenix, Robert DeNiro and Zazie Beetz in a tale that is inventive and original.

For the comic book purist, this movie is straight heresy. Phillips deliberately tries to create sympathy for Batman’s arch-nemesis by giving him a rational and believable origin story. Phillips removes the Joker from its known origin story and creates a new one that is definitely not canon. In fact, the story told is so outrageously told that not only does it re-create the origin story of the Joker but it also re-creates the origin story of Batman as well. Bruce Wayne, Alfred Pennyworth, and even Thomas and Martha Wayne appear in the film which keeps the film grounded in the DC Universe, however, the characters are taken far out of their timeline and therefore have no relevance to the actual story of Batman and the Joker. The symbiotic relationship between Batman and the Joker has been destroyed by creating a world where Joker exists without his riva

For movie aficionados, this movie achieves something that Captain America: The Winter Soldier and even the more acclaimed Dark Knight trilogy does in taking a comic book character and story and transcending the boundaries of the comic book movie. Joker plays more like Taxi Driver or Psycho in its keen, watchful documenting of the mental descent of a man. Ultimately, in a year where Quentin Tarantino can create an alternative timeline to actual historical events, surely Phillips can be afforded the literary latitude to be creative on a fictional story.

In a performance that many are calling Oscar-worthy, Joaquin Phoenix re-establishes the character of Joker. Where Jack Nicholson, Heath Ledger, and Jared Leto have all created their cinematic versions of the villain, Phoenix’s version is completely original, it neither borrows nor compliments any of the previous iterations. It is it’s own.

While this version of the classic villain is truly new, Phoenix, himself, is a new breed of actor, the transformative. More involved than method acting, Phoenix literally transforms himself into the role of Arthur Fleck. (He reportedly lost a significant amount of weight for the role, coming in at just over 150 pounds.) He contorts his emaciated body in a twisted, maniacal dance that is mesmerizing and disgusting all at the same time. He unnervingly stares into the camera and delivers lines that reek of insanity and madness yet somehow elicits pity and empathy from the audience. It is a masterful work that surely should receive a nomination by the Academy.

Phillips channels the energy of Scorsese and also uses the comedic talents he honed in movies like Old School and The Hangover to craft a feature that captures the ugly comedy in the mundane, trivial and obtuse moments of life. He allows the audience to envision the joke that becomes obvious to Fleck and drives him to be a villain. He also creatively mutes the color palette of the film to create a dreary look throughout most of the film that instantly changes like Dorothy entering Oz when Fleck triumphantly dons his Joker outfit.

Excellently directed and superbly acted, Joker is an instant classic. Rated R for strong bloody violence, disturbing behavior, language, and brief sexual images, it is a disturbing and definitely violent character study that burns like a fuse, first slowly and then gains momentum to its explosive climax. In the end, even the comic book purists should accept this movie for outstanding work that it is.

Grade: A