Exberliner are on the Lido for the 76th Venice Film Festival, and this year, Todd Phillips is turning our frowns upside down with his long-anticipated take on Batman’s most famous nemesis. Out early October in Germany, here’s our first look review of Joker…
Another movie featuring the Joker? This isn’t the first time we’ve seen the clown prince of crime: from Cesar Romero to Heath Ledger, via Jack Nicholson and *cough* if we croup enough, it never happened *cough* Jared Leto, Batman’s arch nemesis never lacked screen time. But there’s no getting rid of a great baddie, and you can be sure you’ve never seen Gotham’s cackling lunatic quite like this before.
Unlike recent comic book fare, Joker sees DC finally ditching the tactic of fecklessly imitating Kevin Feige’s storytelling blueprint and crafting a singular standalone story. Eyebrows did remain raised concerning the choice of director, Todd Phillips (Old School, The Hangover trilogy) who would have the daunting task of following Heath Ledger’s Joker (and the much simpler matter of banishing whatever happened in Suicide Squad). Phillips wasn’t the most obvious of choices, but all reservations are quickly dispelled. Alongside co-writer Scott Silver, he crafts an origin story that doubles up as a character study of a man on the brink of insanity. And as we’ve been told before in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, “all it takes is a little push”…
Set in Gotham in 1981, we meet Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a profoundly unbalanced individual who has been in and out of institutions. He works as a street clown and dabbles (unsuccessfully) in stand-up comedy, trying to live up to his mother’s belief that he was put on earth to bring joy to the world and make people smile. However, austerity measures from the government that reduce his meds and one bloody trip on the subway will lead Arthur to unknowingly become the figurehead for the 99%.
As you may have guessed from that description and the trailers, the Boy Wonder and Batmobile aren’t likely to pop up in this one. Joker doesn’t follow the comic-books, a deliberate choice on the part of the screenwriters not to get bogged down with the character’s weighty heritage. It’s a judgement call that might cause some rabid fanboys to scream-Tweet about the film being a betrayal, a hilarious criticism that can be shut down with one factoid: the Joker doesn’t have a definitive canonical origin. He was a failed comedian in Alan Moore’s 1988 comic The Killing Joke, Tim Burton made him the murderer of Bruce Wayne’s parents, and Nolan hinted that the homicidal maniac could be a war veteran. The Joker we see here is a reinvention, a sort of tragic hero who can’t mould himself into the functioning member of society the system expects.
What Joaquin Phoenix does with Arthur / Joker is quite remarkable. Having dropped a fair few kgs for the role, he looks like beaten down twiglet and plays him like a cross between Norman Bates and Travis Bickle, with even hints of Christine Chubbuck in the final act. It’s a captivating turn, and the way he straggles, dances and contorts his wiry, protruding limbs often speak volumes as to his mental condition, reflecting the character’s torment while showing how there’s only so much kicking a system can inflict before someone kicks back. Rather deftly, the script sets the character further apart from the rest of the functioning world by giving him a medical condition that causes Arthur to laugh uncontrollably. It’s a real condition called PLC (Pathological Laughter or Crying) and when he weeps underneath his spasms, hands out a card reading “Forgive My Laughter” or whimpers “I just don’t want to feel so bad anymore”, you can’t help but feel for a pitiful man as opposed to hiss at the future supervillain.
There’s already been chatter about how problematic it is that the character becomes a “folk hero” to the disenfranchised, one who inspires many to brandish “Kill The Rich” placards in the face of a Trumpian Thomas Wayne, who asserts he’s the only one who can save the city. Some have even commented that this Joker could be repurposed by a toxic few as an incel / 4Chan poster boy. Todd Phillips stated in the press conference that movies mirror society and do not mould it, and whether or not you adhere to that view point, Phoenix’s Joker remains a character who is ostracised, pummelled and wounded, but never heroic.
Elsewhere, it’s worth mentioning that Phillips’ direction, though solid, never quite feels distinctive enough and leaves you with the impression that the elevator pitch limited itself to: “What if we plonked the Joker in Taxi Driver?” Lawrence Sher’s evocative cinematography frames Gotham like New York in the 80s, an oppressive, sepia-tone urban shitmare where the Scorsesian splashes of colour only serve to remind you how hope is nothing but a bygone memory. Sher’s craft works in perfect unison with Hildur Guðnadóttir’s darkly mournful and foreboding cello-heavy score, but the direction never rises to their level. Whether it’s the nostril-stinging stench of the Taxi Driver-indebted setting, the repeated Bickle gun hand gesture or the presence of Robert De Niro playing a talk show host, in an obvious nod to The King Of Comedy, Phillips never truly steps out of Scorsese’s shadow. A less anonymous directorial mark could have elevated the finished product, as well as trusting the audience enough to forego spelling things out for one minor and rather obvious revelation.
All in all, Joker is not quite the tour de force or game-changer we could have hoped for, but remains a reinvention that’s no laughing matter.