Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures
Theatrical Release: Oct. 4, 2019
Home Media Release: Digital – Dec. 17, 2019; Physical Media – Jan. 7, 2020
Warner Bros. Pictures Joker stars Oscar nominee Joaquin Phoenix in the title role, alongside Oscar winner Robert De Niro, and is directed, produced and co-written by Oscar nominee Todd Phillips.
Joker centers around the iconic arch nemesis and is an original, standalone story not seen before on the big screen. Phillips’ exploration of Arthur Fleck (Phoenix), a man disregarded by society, is not only a gritty character study, but also a broader cautionary tale.
The film also stars Zazie Beetz (Deadpool 2), Frances Conroy (TV’s American Horror Story, Hulu’s Castle Rock), Marc Maron (TV’s Maron, GLOW), Bill Camp (Red Sparrow, Molly’s Game), Glenn Fleshler (TV’s Billions, Barry), Shea Whigham (First Man, Kong: Skull Island), Brett Cullen (42, Netflix’s Narcos), Douglas Hodge (Red Sparrow, TV’s Penny Dreadful) and Josh Pais (Motherless Brooklyn, Going in Style).
Phillips (The Hangover trilogy) directs from a screenplay he co-wrote with writer Scott Silver (The Fighter), based on characters from DC. The film is produced by Phillips and Bradley Cooper under their Joint Effort banner, and Emma Tillinger Koskoff. It is executive produced by Walter Hamada, Michael E. Uslan, Aaron L. Gilbert, Joseph Garner, Richard Baratta, and Bruce Berman.
Behind the scenes, Phillips is joined by director of photography Lawrence Sher (Godzilla: King of the Monsters, The Hangover trilogy), production designer Mark Friedberg (Selma, The Amazing Spider-Man 2), editor Jeff Groth (War Dogs, The Hangover Part III), and Oscar-winning costume designer Mark Bridges (Phantom Thread, The Artist).
A Warner Bros. Pictures presentation, in Association with Village Roadshow Pictures, in Association with BRON Creative, a Joint Effort Production, a Todd Phillips Movie, Joker will be distributed worldwide by Warner Bros. Pictures.
By James Harvey
While an unquestionably engaging movie, Joker isn’t the thought-provoking crime drama/origin story that it thinks it is. While the performances here, particularly Joaquin Phoenix’s turn as the title character, are undeniably strong and at times hypnotic, and the film itself looks stunning, Joker is an ultimately shallow, muddled affair that can’t pull itself together nor have the impact it’s so clearly reaching for. It tries to provoke, shock and antagonize, but instead holds itself back from any truly sinister behavior and, as a result, Joker ends up letting out more of a whimper than a roar.
Arthur Fleck, played by Phoenix and the film’s de facto Joker, lives at home with his mom (Francis Conroy) and works a day job as a rent-a-clown. He has ambitions of becoming a stand-up comedian, idolizing local celebrity Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), and strives for a better life, but finds himself struggling against uncaring social workers and mental health issues. Joker follows Fleck’s on a journey – which includes learning the truth about his past and fighting against a system that keeps pushing him down – that will eventually put him on the path to becoming one of the most ruthless villains in Gotham City’s history.
As usual, The World’s Finest’s review of Joker will be as spoiler-free as possible.
Grim, gritty and relentlessly cynical to the point of near parody at times, director Todd Phillips doesn’t hold back in showing us the worst of Gotham City in the early 1980s. His interpretation of the fictional city is pulled directly from 1970s/1980s New York, with the film’s approach to characters, tone and overall story beats clearly inspired by the likes of Taxi Driver and 1070s crime films. It’s actually an inspired choice for showing the cesspool Gotham City has become and how it could create something as twisted as The Joker. The city is a near literal garbage pile riddled with crime. In the opening minutes, for example, Fleck is brutally attacked by some kids trying to steal a sign from him. It’s a little over-the-top, juuuuust bordering on comical, but offers a look at just what Fleck is enduring in his day-to-day existence.
Unsurprisingly, Phoenix does incredible work with the material given, enveloping himself in the role completely and creating a fully fleshed-out, believable character. Fitting, given the character’s comic book backstory, this Joker is unlike any we’ve ever seen before. Lightly inspired by Batman: The Killing Joke, with bits of inspiration taken here and there from other key Joker appearances, including The Dark Knight Returns, Fleck is a sad-sap of a character, beaten down by the world and struggling to be understood. Even though Phoenix is in nearly every frame of the film, you quickly forget that it’s him. He makes Fleck feel real, despite how otherworldly he may seem. With Phoenix’s track record, it’s no surprise how far he slips into the role, but don’t let that diminish his work here. His wire-thin, gaunt visage, his swaying, slightly unnerving dancing, his reaction to some of the crimes committed by his own hands, it’s an incredible performance that’s worth the price of admission alone.
Joker is essentially a one-man show, with Phoenix at the helm, but he’s joined by an incredible supporting cast, too. Even if said cast – which includes primarily DeNiro (as late-night comedian Murray Franklin), Conroy (as Arthur’s mother, Penny Fleck), Brett Cullen (as Thomas Wayne) and Zazie Beetz (as Fleck’s neighbor Sophie Dumond) – does ‘t get much to do except react to the ramifications and revelations from Fleck’s journey, they all admirably throw themselves completely into their respective characters, grounding the movie just that much more. Still, as real as these characters may feel, they’re ultimately let down to varying degrees by the film’s muddled story and the limited material.
The plot is fairly straight-forward, but the overall execution seems confused and unsure of itself. Joker seems like it wants to make a point but is too afraid to go the distance, and that concession cripples the grim, hard look at society it’s working so hard to portray. Part of that unfortunately has to do with the film’s comic book inspirations. Joker tries to hit some of those familiar beats you’d expect from a comic book-inspired movie, but those nods and ties serve as more of a hindrance. There’s one connection in particular to Batman’s origin that’s worked into the film’s narrative – you’ll know it when you see it – that’s so jarring and forced that one can’t help but elicit an eye roll. Remove every DC Comics or Batman-related nod in the movie and, honestly, it really wouldn’t take anything away from the film’s story (though it would impact box office numbers, one could argue). There’s a worthwhile story to be told here, but Joker is ultimately not brave enough (for lack of a better term) to tell it.
This effect also trickles over to the film’s main character, as well. Joker establishes itself as a plausible origin for The Joker, but those ties even jumble Fleck’s story. Even still, the movie doesn’t even offer that connective tissue to make Fleck’s inevitable jump from pre-Joker to actual-Joker work. It feels like due to the big IP being handled here, there’s almost a conscious effort by the film’s team to not push things too far with Joker, even though a character such as The Clown Prince of Crime, in most iterations, kind of requires just that. While the movie puts Fleck in increasingly difficult situations, to the point where he’s forced to fight back, it still posits the character as ultimately misunderstood and a victim, almost an anti-hero. Everything he does is framed in a way to make it justifiable, as his victims tend to be people who’ve wronged him in one fashion or another, which robs the movie of the type of impact it’s clearly going for. While he engages in some violent acts, it feels toothless, almost petty, and doesn’t line up with the expected fate of Fleck. He never does anything truly contemptible to turn the audience against him. Instead the film attempts to make us sympathize with him, which makes nearly everything Fleck does (in the context of the film’s story) seem so mundane and meaningless.
And that’s such a shame because Phoenix is absolutely electric in Joker, but the film’s script and even the directing ends up holding the film back from what it’s trying to accomplish. Phillips’ directing is pretty stellar, at times even revelatory, but as the movie goes on, it feels more and more like he’s just emulating more from the likes of Martin Scorcese than using his own instincts. As a result, the movie feels a superficial at times, especially in some key moments toward the end of the film, when it should instead be pulling us deeper and deeper in. The climax is still an exhilarating culmination of Fleck’s rocky journey, but it just doesn’t hit as hard as it should. That said, all things considered, Joker is still an interesting attempt to bring something new to the superhero movie genre. Granted, the movie is essentially a Coles Note version of Taxi Driver with Batman references penciled in the margins, but the mash-up does feel pretty fresh.
While Joker may not be the unqualified success it purports itself to be, the movie’s score by Hildur Guðnadóttir is and deserves every last accolade and award given. Available on WaterTower Music, Guðnadóttir’s work creates a dark, unsettling atmosphere which perfectly nails the film’s themes and tones. Perhaps moreso than the movie itself, it captures Fleck’s slow descent into darkness and allows the listener to follow along until everything just erupts during the film’s stirring finale. It’s a riveting journey and Guðnadóttir is the perfect guide.
Despite Joker‘s shortcomings, the movie is still a worthwhile watch, even as a simple curiosity. The directing is solid, though derivative at times, the acting by Phoenix is incredible and there are some really great and legitimately intense moments scattered throughout. However, Joker doesn’t quite go as far as it should and it’s novelty, as it is something unique for the comic book movie genre, starts to wear thing as it becomes apparent how toothless it is. While it’s an interesting possible origin story for the iconic Bat-foe, it doesn’t really work in the end. That said, it’s still a fascinating watch and it’s easy to see why the film has garnered so much acclaim. Joker may not succeed in what it sets out to do, but it’s still a commendable, intriguing effort. Recommended, but enter at your own risk!
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