JOKER (2019)

  • Release Date: 04/10/2019
  • Director: Todd Philips
  • Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz

Joker has been the most talked-about Hollywood film of the year and for good reasons. At first watch, this is the kind of film that will unsettle anyone and quite certainly make someone think about the film long after it is done playing. That is truly a novelty considering the kind of stuff that we have been served up this year. But after a few viewings, I felt that we as audiences might have been so preoccupied with Joaquin Phoenix’s brilliant and haunting performance that we might have missed the fact that this is, in fact, a pretty generic origin story that is not strictly speaking original.

Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a comedian who is not doing too well in his professional life is stuck with taking care of his mentally deranged mother Penny (Frances Conroy). Arthur is lonely and is repeatedly mistreated by different people for no reason. One of his team members hands him a gun for safety and then in the future accuses him of actually asking for the gun himself. Things like these weigh down upon the man and make him question the fabric of the society. His mother keeps telling him that she was very close to Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), her previous employer and the owner of the Wayne Industries. She keeps hinting that Wayne might have been more than just a boss to her. Soon things take a sour turn when Penny makes it clear to Arthur that Wayne might be his father.

Arthur is mentally disturbed and has a condition that forces him to laugh uncontrollably. He ends up making a mockery of himself in a standup comedy show that gets all the wrong attention from a famous standup comic, Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro). Franklin had previously appreciated Arthur in a show and ever since Arthur has looked up to him as a father figure. However, the way Franklin uses Arthur’s failed act as a means to ridicule him and gain viewership from it makes Arthur hate the man and see him as someone only interested in financial gains even if it means breaking the heart of someone who truly loves and respects him. This is also the time when Arthur loses the last ray of hope of his life in the form of a counsel that was being paid for by the authorities. Desperate, he reaches out to Thomas Wayne for acceptance more than anything but the meeting reveals certain facts to him that sends him further downward in a spiral from which he can only emerge as his alter ego, “The Joker”.

Joaquin Phoenix is the heart and soul of the film and he does so well with the character that he commands the viewer’s attention and emotions throughout their viewing experience. What he does best with the character is keeping it level headed and real. For that, we also have to credit the director but Phoenix plays Joker with the kind of simplicity and mild mannerism that makes the viewer love the character and root for him even when he is doing some terrible things. We see him getting tortured again and again for no reason and we are forced to ask ourselves if something similar happened to us would we not act like what the character of Arthur does? Therein lies the biggest victory of the character.

There are moments when we see his expressions turn into something that tells us that he is about to do something very evil but we find it justified. For a very large chunk of the film, Arthur remains submissive and even though there is a sense of pride in his gait, it never gets in your face. Phoenix gradually spirals into madness and how that happens is highly believable and heartbreaking. I just loved the sequence where he kills for the first time and then in a later scene confesses to a total stranger that he doesn’t know why he doesn’t feel bad about killing those people. These are our forays into his psyche falling apart and Phoenix excels in these parts exceptionally. It wouldn’t be wrong to say that he makes the character of Joker his own. His rendition is very different from anything that we have seen so far and I loved it to the core.

However, once the euphoria associated with Joaquin Phoenix’s performance settled in, I started looking closely into the overall film and noticed that it is actually a remake of Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976). There innumerable things in the film that are a direct nod to Taxi Driver including the big climax. It didn’t need to be that way. Todd Philips could have easily looked into the material available about the character in the comics. Books like “The Killing Joke” by Alan Moore delved into the origin of the Joker and did a fantastic job with it. I believe with a little more research, Philips could have come up with a story that was not so uncomfortably close to a film that is so important in pop-culture.

That is not all. There are entire sequences that have been directly lifted from Taxi Driver. I will cite the example of the scene where Arthur speaks to himself with a gun in his hand. The viewers can find the rest when they watch the film. Things like these spoiled my enjoyment to a great extent. When I walk into a film like Joker I atleast expect original content. I understand that there can be only as many original stories and every story these days is a version of a story that we have seen or heard somewhere but here we are served up something that is a recreation of a film that is fresh in the memory, is beautiful in itself and holds an iconic position in its realm.

Apart from Phoenix, no other character in the film leaves any impression. Robert De Niro is one of my favorite actors of all times but he is given nothing to work with here. His role is just about a glorified cameo and he never gets a chance to get into his elements. Zazie Beetz plays a character that we think is the only support system that Arthur has but how her character turns out, in the end, left me somewhat underwhelmed. Frances Conroy as Arthur’s mother and Brett Cullen as Thomas Wayne play characters that are important but just don’t have enough screen time to leave a mark.

The Joker is a film that is what it is simply because of the way Joaquin Phoenix portrays the titular character. I will be surprised if Phoenix doesn’t get the nod for the Oscars for this film. I will be even more surprised if DC doesn’t find a way to incorporate this character in their future DCEU films. We already have a terrific Harley Quinn in Margot Robbie and her new film Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn is all set to hit theaters in 2020. It will be interesting to see how these two play off each other if at all something like that happens. For now, I am in awe of Joaquin Phoenix and his rendition of the maniacal prince of crime just as much as everyone else.

Rating: 3.5/5 (3.5 out of 5 Stars)  



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