Joker may end up as the defining movie of 2019. It is arguably the most grim, cynical blockbuster ever made. As a movie, Joker is derivative, sadistic, cruel, depressing, and uncomfortable; it’s also a well-made piece of mainstream entertainment. As an event, I can’t think of a more discussed movie in pop culture; most everyone that knows it exists has an opinion on it. Only a few months after Avengers: Endgame sent a decade’s worth of characters out on a (mostly) fan pleasing note, Joker arrived on a fifth of the budget to take the wind out of the comic book high. People have loved it, hated it, been bored by it, praised it, or have outright refused to see it. Few films come along that bring out the reactions Joker has, a polarizing movie for polarizing times. There’s no doubt that the cast and director knew what they would be getting into by making a DC movie by way of early career Scorsese, and for better or for worse, they fully committed to what’s on screen.
Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix, channeling much of the unhinged energy he displayed in The Master) lives in a hellhole of a Gotham City, working as a budget clown and aspiring to be a comedian like his idol Murray Franklin (Robert DeNiro, more Johnny Carson than The King of Comedy’s Rupert Pupkin). He lives with his mother Sophie (Francis Conroy) and has a crush on his neighbor (Zazie Beetz, one of two Atlanta alum in the movie). When Arthur isn’t getting beaten down in the streets, or fired from his job, he’s having delusions of fame, love, and acceptance. The first half of the movie is a collection of abuses and disappointments inflicted upon an already unstable Arthur, a countdown of catalysts for the breakdown the audience not only knows expects but anticipates. The second half is the reconciliation of the damaged Arthur Fleck with the inevitable Joker, the rage deflected back at the city that’s left its poorest citizens to fend for themselves. Director Todd Phillips admirably walks the tightrope of having turgid material be highly watchable (the movie could have easily been insufferable with its humorless streak).
Watching Joker a second time, I was able look past the experiment Philips and co-writer Scott Silver envisioned (putting a known property as a skin over a gritty ‘70s character drama) and see it as a highly effective piece of entertainment from a 19-year Hollywood veteran. For all the criticisms of how it rips off Taxi Driver and King of Comedy, it’s in essence little different from DePalma’s Hitchcock obsessions like Body Double or Dressed to Kill. For a movie that seems to care little about the DC Universe or creating a Batman super villain, the movie still can’t decide how much it wants to lean on the property to fill in blanks, such as featuring Thomas Wayne so prominently and allusions to the comics and the previous Tim Burton version. The film can come off as uneven, sacrificing narrative beats to achieve its themes. If you’re looking for a subtle commentary on how society neglects mental illness or social inequality, this ain’t it; it sculpts with a sledgehammer. Joaquin Phoenix gives it his all as Arthur/Joker, and he delivers yet another iconic performance of the character in a distinguished line of actors (sorry, Jared Leto), and since he’s in virtually every scene of the movie, it may be the most impressive portrayal yet.
Joker breaks no new ground; on the contrary, it is very much enamored of the past, a disturbed Valentine to when Hollywood regularly released unsympathetic character dramas as tentpoles. Without a known commodity headlining the story, the movie would likely have earned one hundredth of its gross and attention. Instead, the movie has been celebrated, vilified, and as only appropriate for 2019/20, memeified. No matter where one stands on its value as entertainment, or on the irresponsibility of its existence, it has captured the zeitgeist of the end of the decade. Other contemporary films may win more awards or make more money, but Joker will be remembered.