Joker (2019): Review

“Do I really look like a guy with a plan? You know what I am? I’m a dog chasing cars. I wouldn’t know what to do with one if I caught it! You know, I just…DO things.”

Joker, The Dark Knight (2008)

The best iteration of the Joker ever put to screen uttered those words 11 years ago, and they really show just how much Christopher Nolan understood the Joker’s penchant for chaos. Plus, who can forget Heath Ledger’s flawless performance?

I swore to myself that I wasn’t going to mention The Dark Knight in this review, but here I am opening with it. I guess I’m not a guy with a plan, either.

Tonight, I saw Todd Phillips’ incarnation of Joker take to the big screen, with Joaquin Phoenix at the driver’s seat, leaning out of the window as the wind rushes through his hair. Okay, I’ll stop mentioning The Dark Knight now. Or I’ll try, at least.

I’ll start with a disclaimer of sorts so that those of you who may be looking for the raves you’ve heard about can be prepared.

I didn’t like this movie.

Did we all survive that? Yes? Good, now I can explain why.

Academy Award nominee and Golden Globe winner Todd Phillips is probably best known for helming The Hangover trilogy. Or at least he was. Now he’ll be remembered for creating 2019’s Joker, along with the plaudits and controversies that come with that mantle. Anyone directing a comic book movie faces the expectation of the source material, and the rancour of Martin Scorsese, but Phillips had a harder task than most of them. He had to follow what Nolan and Ledger created. Let’s just ignore Leto’s Joker because I don’t like to talk about it. So allow me to tangent for just a second.

I consider Heath Ledger’s Joker to be the second-best acting performance ever put to screen (closely following DDL’s Daniel Plainview because of course). I’m sure we’ve all seen it by now and I don’t need to explain why, it’s right there on the screen, his dedication to the character, his understanding of his psyche, plus he had a opposing entity in Bruce Wayne who he could play off and direction that supported his artistic vision for the character. Simply put, I think it’s perfect.

So back to Todd Phillips. The idea for Joker was pitched about three years ago, after Phillips had realised that his film War Dogs wasn’t what people wanted to see. He pitched the idea to Warner Bros., and the film was born. Joaquin Phoenix had also wanted to play a character of a similar ilk, and was coincidentally Phillip’s first choice for the iconic role.

Here we are three years later and, well, it certainly is a film.

Let me start with the obvious so this isn’t an incoherent mess all over your screen. Joaquin Phoenix is brilliant in this role, but you’ve heard this many times before. When is Joaquin Phoenix not brilliant in a role? The man can quite literally do anything. What I liked about his performance most was his physicality. He really embodied the spirit of the character. And I don’t mean losing a bunch of weight and cackling throughout the entire movie. It’s the way he moves. Phoenix glides across the screen like a perfect showman, his Arthur Fleck just daring the world to pay attention to him, knowing they won’t like what they find. Some of the best sequences in the movie are Phoenix chewing the scenery in the best way possible. For a character who is in virtually every scene, that’s a good thing. He acts the hell out of it and, while I’m not in the business of comparison, I think Joaquin Phoenix should be proud of his work here. He doesn’t quite stand toe-to-toe with Ledger just yet for me, but it’s still a wonderful performance.

It helps that Phoenix is always framed wonderfully. Lawrence Sher, who shot Phillips’ other films as well as Godzilla: King of the Monsters and Garden State, does some excellent work here. His angles are always exciting, his camera following Phoenix with every step, spin, or glide to create some awesome shots. The images involving the large set of stairs are fantastic, as is the subway scene. Cinematographically, that is. I should also mention the score which, while not as affecting as I was imagining, still does a great job atmospherically. Hildur Guðnadóttir, fresh off her Emmy for her work in Chernobyl, really captures the tones of the movie as Fleck descends into the madness of the world around him and of his own shattering psyche. Occasionally, it was a bit overbearing which might have been the point, but that’s not an issue with the score itself which I quite enjoyed.

So the technicals are good, the acting is good, the problem with this movie lies in its screenplay. It wants to be so many things that it forgets to actually pick an angle and run with it. Is it a scathing commentary on the world’s treatment of mental health issues? Is it a blistering condemnation of capitalist America and how the affluent can turn a blind eye to the rest of the world? Is it a deep, gritty character study about a man who has been told all his life who he is that he can’t even recognise that for himself? It certainly dips its toes into all of those waters, gently breaking the surface before quickly withdrawing it and searching for another body of water to swim in.

I wish Phoenix had a better script written for him (not that he needed it, the unpredictability of his demeanour was one of the best things the movie has going for it) because what he was given doesn’t live up to the greatness of his performance. A lot of the dialogue is trite and uninspiring. Fleck’s televised third-act rant feels so recycled that I felt like I already knew it before it even happened.

Speaking of, the whole Murray Franklin angle of the movie didn’t work for me at all. I feel like it was trying to tell me something thematic, but never really got there. For a film so fixated on feeling grounded and introspective, it sure puts on a lot of veneers where this arc is concerned. Sure, it’s showing the apathy of the rest of the world through the false hilarity of a late-night talk show, but this is the world Arthur is enraptured in and the one we’re following. It takes Arthur outside of his head, at least until the third act, and subsequently sends us to a Robert DeNiro who might not even be acting. It certainly provides the perfect stage for the finale, but with such an array of messages floating through it, it only serves to be distracting and too fantastical to appear anywhere but inside Arthur’s head.

Random though, why was Zazie Beetz’s character even in this movie? Now without going into spoiler territory, there was literally no need for her to be there which is such a shame because she’s a really great actress and screen presence and she should’ve been given much more to do or nothing at all, because this is just a waste. Brian Tyree Henry also suffers from the much the same way, but Beetz’s character is clearly set-up only to have no sort of resolution apart from one that still leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

I couldn’t help but feel like Phillips lost control of this movie. Phoenix ran away with the whole thing and took Lawrence Sher with him, unravelling Phillips’ script and rendering it secondary to the majesty of Phoenix’s performance. Phoenix spends a lot of the film acting by himself, which provides some of the film’s best moments. Actually, probably all of them.

Writing too much about is going to put me in a bad mood, so I’ll just close with this. I was hugely excited for this, deeming the first trailer magnificent, so it’s quite disappointing to come out of this feeling dissatisfied. I’m not too sure why this is garnering huge amounts of controversy regarding its brutality, which I think was much too exaggerated. There was a higher level of brutality in Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood earlier in the year. I understand the chatter on a surface level because of the culture that seems to be engendered in our world of mimicking what we see on screen. Joker definitely doesn’t romanticise violence, nor does it condone it, it merely provides a window into the mindset of someone who enacts violence, like a lot of movies do. I won’t come to this movie’s defence very often, but in this case I do think talk of it being ‘aspirational’ or ‘encouraging’ as I’ve seen are quite misguided, at least in my humble opinion.

I usually try not to write negative reviews, but I had to express these thoughts before I exploded seeing all of the praise this movie is receiving. Did you like it? Did you hate it? Come talk to me about it on Twitter @Jamie_Carrick_ or follow me on Letterboxd.

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