I’m going to have to ramp up a whole bunch before actually getting to the actual review. I had zero interest in seeing Joker. Actually, I had less than zero interest. Let’s go to the “tale of the tape” as the boxing announcers say. Here are all the minuses (for me, YMMV):
- Comic book superhero movie
- Villain superhero movie
- DCEU movie
- Awful, awful trailers
- “Gritty reboot”
- Origin story
- “Not actually a superhero movie”
- Joaquin Phoenix
- Not Caesar Romero
- References Taxi Driver/King of Comedy
- Critically acclaimed (at first)
- Fountain of memes
I’ve been done with superhero movies more-or-less for about 10 years (paternal requirements notwithstanding), the DCEU has just been a crushing disappointment (I was a DC kid), the Joker has a great backstory already (he was a ruthless villain, The Red Hood, who fell into a vat of chemicals when fleeing the Batman, turning his criminal mind into an insanely criminal mind), the trailers were basically just LOUD with this one-word-at-a-time-style for a way too long tagline (PUT. ON. A. HAPPY. FACE.) and everything about this movie says to me “Why? Why? Why would anyone go see this?”
And then something amazing happened! That is to say, I went to see it. (A few morons requested it, and I’m nothing if not easily influenced.)
And? I still don’t know why (almost) anyone would go see it. Now, don’t get me wrong: It’s actually a very good film. It’s well constructed. The creators really cared about it, that is very, very apparent. And they knew their stuff: Besides the aforementioned Scorsese pictures, this film pays its respects to a lot of great cinema without being slavishly derivative of any of them. Joaquin Phoenix delivers the best performance I’ve ever seen him put up. (Usually I find him a little cringe-worthy or at least off-putting.) But he does a fine, sensitive job here portraying a madman who just keeps getting crazier.
So, I can totally see why a Joaquin Phoenix fan (there must be some) would go see it. But I can’t explain the $850M box-office. This is a movie that, had it not been titled Joker, would’ve ended up next to Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer on the Last Blockbuster’s “scary movie” aisle. It’s a movie that verges on misery porn, so ground down is its protagonist.
It has so little to do with the comic book character, the only really iffy parts were those that tried to tie it in to the Batman universe. A young Bruce Wayne is in the film which, if you do the math, means 30-year-old Batman is beating up a 65-year-old man. (Joaquin is probably supposed to be younger, however.) The Thomas Wayne character has no bearing on the one known to Batman fans—or even someone who read a couple of comics as a kid.
Wayne is kind of a bully and definitely a douchebag—a little Trump-esque, perhaps? Later, when a mob dressed as clowns is protesting—I dunno, society?—as represented by Thomas Wayne, I thought I saw a brief glimpse of a sign that said “RESIST”.
Thankfully, one of the things this movie does really well is avoid politics, though. If you decided that Wayne was Trump, well, that would mean that the clown mobs destroying everything are Hillary supporters, and their hero is a literal paranoid schizophrenic. (Say, maybe this does map!) Not just politics, though, the movie avoids anything like an easily verbalized allegory for some current social outrage. Arthur (the Joker) definitely gets the short end of the stick at every turn, but so do a lot of people in $CURRENTYEAR.
Especially if $CURRENTYEAR is 1981, which it is if we go by the fashions, the cars and the Excalibur and Zorro, The Gay Blade double-feature. (Apparently this is established by other DCEU movies as well.) But consider, if you will, that we have to go back nearly 40 years to find a suitable dystopia for creating the Joker. As the kids are saying, “1989 Joker, throw him into a vat of chemicals. 2019 Joker, throw him into…society.”
Anyway, the whole story arc is that of crazy-man Arthur who lives with his mother and takes a beating from the world, and one day kills some people who are beating on him. From this, he finds himself slowly empowered to—well, mostly to kill more people. At times it looks like his life is turning around, but nah, he just kills more people with less provocation. In the end he creates chaos in Gotham and ultimately creates the environment for the Batman. But without that last part, you’re talking any number of indie art house flicks about losers, which mostly vanish into obscurity.
As Joe Bob Briggs notes, Halloween was hardly the first great slasher, but it was the first one that didn’t look like it had been made by someone who might actually be a slasher. Joker is kind of like the Henry you can take respectable people to see.
The acting is good, with nice bits from supporting player Zazie Beetz as the single mom who shows some interest in Arthur, and Frances Conroy as Arthur’s mother. De Niro is not at all convincing as a late night talk show host, though I can see where he’s trying to ape Carson. (And the overall recreation of “The Tonight Show” is uncanny.) But face it: This is the Joaquin Phoenix show, and he does a great job.
Well-shot, slick, mostly well-paced, though the misery bogs things down a bit in the second act. Good use of music. Didn’t have the gawdawful color-coding that most movies have these days, and captured the feel of a gritty ’70s color palette without actually being that ugly. I guess I enjoyed it. I found much to admire, at least. And at #7 at the domestic box office, it’s the only top 10 film I’ve seen this year (until it’s crowded out by holiday releases that I won’t see).
But I still don’t know who I’d recommend it to.