Review: Joaquin Phoenix’s ‘Joker’ – The Hamlet of Villains

Normally, when I write a review, I try to objectively evaluate what was good, bad, plausible, or implausible about a film. I’m hard pressed to find anything to negatively critique about Joker. To say it’s a great comic book film doesn’t give it enough credit. It’s a great film. Period.

Joker touched on a variety of societal ills, specifically wealth inequality, lack of quality treatment for mental illness (especially for those on the losing end of wealth equality), and also how desperation can manipulate people looking for something or someone to latch onto. In many ways, it reminded me a bit of one of my favorite films, Sunset Blvd… but if Norma Desmond was poor and a dude.

Speaking of said dude, Joaquin Phoenix was beyond excellent as “the Hamlet of villains,” portraying Arthur Fleck’s metamorphosis into the Joker as simultaneously creepy, yet sympathetic. At points throughout, you watch the film thinking to yourself, “Why is the crazy guy making so much sense?”

Fleck is mentally unstable and delusional to begin with. His mental condition, paired with his personal history and current situation feed into one another in a toxic ecosystem, contributing to his downward spiral. It’s not just one isolated incident or solitary contributing factor that causes him to unravel, nor is it as simple a matter of nature versus nurture to explain what causes a person to have a complete psychotic break.

A Spoiler-Free Dive Down the Rabbit Hole of ‘Joker’

Initially, I was thinking Joker was going to be a riff on Scorcese’s King of Comedy, a little-remembered film featuring the director’s man-muse, Robert DeNiro as Rupert Pupkin, a failed stand-up comic that glides into psychosis and makes a name for himself as a guest on a late-night talk show.

In a bit of stunt casting, DeNiro appears as Murray Franklin, a late-night host in the vein of Johnny Carson. While Batman is typically the Joker’s foil, this time around, Franklin serves as one of several catalysts that pushes Arthur Fleck’s buttons.

Without giving away too much about the film, Joker is set in 1980s Gotham (essentially, New York City), but still zeroes in on key issues that are relevant today, specifically the conflicting messages of many public figures calling for empathy for some while remaining blissfully ignorant to the plights of others who are less fortunate and failing to dig deeper into root causes that are not always so simple to identify.

Joker was intelligently written, with numerous twists throughout that make you think on your feet. Joker calls for the viewer to try to connect the dots. Initially, you may think, “Well, if X happened, then that explains Y.” Then, when X is thrown out and proven false, you have to reevaluate your theory about Y and what that means within the complex equation that is Arthur Fleck. 

Contrary to some reviews, Joker is not a rallying cry to incels, nor does it glorify violence. Rather, it attempts to take a not-so-cut-and-dried look at what makes a psychopath. The scenes of violence are about as tastefully done as you can do them without removing the impact that, yes, people have died. It’s a key part of the story.

If anything, Joker poses the question of whether Arthur Fleck was a man who could have been helped or if it’s just a perfect storm of factors that drove a mild-mannered, albeit disturbed soul to violence. If anything, you come away questioning what is each individual person’s breaking point and what is it that erodes a person’s ability to distinguish between right and wrong. And not just the ability to distinguish between right and wrong, but why double standards exist as to why behaviors are right for some and wrong for others.

I highly recommend seeing it. Joker lives up to the hype and then some. While there are some obvious Easter eggs if you are a Batman fan and those moments will make you theorize about the Batman / Joker dichotomy (even if you don’t read the comics, it’s so entrenched in our culture that just about everyone knows the story), it’s not required to enjoy the flick. It doesn’t have a big comic book movie feel, but is just a flat-our great movie.

Grade: A+

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