Warner Bros./DC Films/Joint Effort/Bron Creative/Village Roadshow Pictures
Directed by Todd Phillips
Produced by Todd Phillips/Bradley Cooper/Emma Tillinger Koskoff
Written by Todd Phillips/Scott Silver
Based on Characters appearing in DC Comics
Music by Hildur Guoandottir
Cinematography by Lawrence Sher
Edited by Jeff Groth
In 1989, DC Comics created their “Elseworlds” imprint which allowed comic book writers and artists to tell stories outside of the established continuity regular and faithful comic book readers were used to. Say you came to DC with an idea of a Victorian era Batman hunting down Jack The Ripper or Baby Kal-El’s rocket landing in Soviet Russia and instead of being raised by a kindly couple who instilled in him good old-fashioned American values, he was raised by Communists and became a Superman for the state. Those are Elseworlds stories.
Now, I open with this not in an attempt to impress you with my knowledge of DC Comics (which I must admit is considerable) but just as a tidbit of trivia to explain to those of you who are more familiar with the traditional versions of The Joker as played by Cesar Romero and Jack Nicholson why Joaquin Phoenix’s interpretation is so different. I took the movie as an Elseworlds DC Movie. Which isn’t a bad way for them to go as they’ve tried to go toe-to-toe with the Marvel Cinematic Universe and they just can’t do it. Their two most successful DCEU movies, “Wonder Woman” and “Aquaman” are in style and tone more like MCU movies. I think that movies such as JOKER is the best creative direction to go for them. Standalone movies that can attract talent that you wouldn’t find in a movie based on a comic book.
Not that JOKER is exactly based on the classic DC character. By the time the end credits rolled I understand why the movie is titled JOKER and not “The Joker.” Because I don’t think that Arthur Fleck is the Joker that eventually becomes the arch enemy of The Batman. But Arthur Fleck is the man who opens a Pandora’s Box of Unchecked Anarchy upon Gotham City that infects its disenfranchised citizens with a spirit of open violent rebellion against a society and system that has ignored and failed the very people it is supposed to help and nurture. This movie isn’t about The Joker we’ve seen in other movies, TV shows and animated series. This movie is about what goes into creating the type of person who can walk into a school, a church or a concert and kill innocent people who are just minding their business and trying to live their lives the best way they can.
Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is a professional clown for hire and aspiring stand-up comedian and not very good at either one of those jobs. He regularly sees a therapist and takes seven medications to control a neurological disorder that makes him laugh uncontrollably at the most inappropriate times. Which of course tends to make his co-workers and others regard Arthur as being more than a little strange. The only people who encourage Arthur to fulfill his dreams is his mother Penny (Frances Conroy) and his neighbor Sophie (Zazie Beetz) who Arthur pursues a romantic relationship with. Arthur lives with and takes care of his mother who has an obsession with billionaire philanthropist Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) running for Mayor of Gotham City. For reasons Arthur can’t for the life of him figure out, his mother insists that Thomas Wayne will “take care of us.”
The one thing in Arthur’s life than can truly be said to make him happy is watching “Live with Murray Franklin!” Murray Franklin (Robert DeNiro) is a late-night talk show host who Arthur idolizes and worships, fantasizing that one night he’ll be headlining on Murray Franklin’s show sharing jokes and applause. In the meantime, growing frustration among Gotham’s lower-class sparks riots and demonstrations focused on the rich. The mental health program that provides Arthur with counseling and medication has its funding cut. This, along with a horrifying act of violence Arthur commits on the subway begins his descent into madness. A descent that seems Arthur was destined for.
JOKER is what I would describe as a comic book movie made for people who don’t read comic books. It’s a psychological thriller about a seriously damaged human being whose emotional instability leads to shocking acts of violence that in turn ignites the great unwashed masses of Gotham City to indulge in their own madness. It belongs to that genre of film referred to as “social horror” or “social thriller” which are horror/thriller movies where the true evil/villain of the movie is society itself. While I’ve heard it compared to “Taxi Driver” and “King of Comedy” I feel it’s more “King of Comedy.” In fact, if you haven’t yet seen JOKER I’d recommend watching “King of Comedy” before you do so as I think both movies definitely share a lot of the same themes and sensibilities.
The look of this movie is fantastic. Although the year is never explicitly stated, from the fashions, the cars and the music, it takes place during the 1980s and it truly looks and feels like the 1980s. This is perhaps the dirtiest, grimiest and grittiest Gotham City I’ve ever seen on film. This looks and feels like a city that sane people shouldn’t live in. And while the other performances in the movie are good, this is firmly Joaquin Phoenix’s movie from start to finish and he’s more than capable of carrying the film on his back. But I have to admit that try as he does to not make Arthur sympathetic or justify his violent acts, I don’t think he succeeded entirely. But time will tell. I think that JOKER is a movie that will benefit from having some time to marinate in our consciousness before we can be totally objective about it. After all, Arthur Fleck isn’t just yet another movie monster made up by a writer and played by an actor. The next time you hear about a mass shooting or some other random act of horrific violence committed by some quiet guy whose neighbors claim is the nicest guy in the world, no matter what his name actually is, he’s Arthur Fleck.