After one of the most controversial prerelease press receptions in modern movie history, Todd Phillips’ “Joker” has finally premiered. “Joker” follows the story of Arthur Fleck, a clown living in New York City who has from severe mental illness. As he struggles to cope with a society that he finds cold and wealth-obsessed, while also trying to come to grips with his illness, Arthur descends into nihilistic criminal behavior.
It’s truly surprising how formulaic “Joker” feels. The film itself is steeped in reference, primarily to Martin Scorsese’s films “Taxi Driver” and “The King of Comedy.” Reference may not even be a strong enough word given how directly in conversation this film feels with its predecessors. “Joker” casts Robert De Niro in practically the same exact role played by Jerry Lewis in “King of Comedy.” Fleck’s speeches about his dismay with Gotham are nearly identical to Travis Bickle’s ramblings about New York City in “Taxi Driver,” and the film’s climax looks like Phillips designed it after his 100th screening of “Network.” Yet with all this plagiarism masquerading as homage, the film does, for the most part, work.
In the conversation surrounding the movie, two sides have developed. One states this film is a modern masterpiece worthy of its title of the Golden Lion from the Venice Film Festival. The other faction dictates that the film is a nihilistic disaster that glorifies mental illness while leaving viewers with a sense of emptiness. While neither of these statements is true, the claim that this film glorifies mental illness feels absurd.
“Joker” clearly wants the audience to empathize with Fleck’s condition while never asking the viewer to admire him for it. Fleck commits heinous acts; Phillips doesn’t glorify them, but he also doesn’t shy away from showing their violence. Instead, he makes the viewer uncomfortable by asking them to reckon with the reality of his actions. The sheer amount of pain and destruction Fleck causes is, in the scope of comic book movies, minimal. Yet with the fact that this setting feels so tangible, and with how plausible Phoenix’s character is, the audience will most likely feel more scared of him than of Thanos in “Avengers: Endgame” or even Jack Nicholson in “Batman.”
The reason “Joker” succeeds is the cast. Joaquin Phoenix as the titular “Joker” will draw comparisons to the mythmaking portrayals by Heath Ledger and Jack Nicholson, and while Ledger is a reference point for this character, there are clearly distinctions. This is the first time the Joker has been portrayed as a character with mental illness. While Ledger and Nicholson in their portrayals both embodied the character’s psychosis, Phoenix channels something much more broken. Fleck can’t communicate socially, he’s incapable of simple tasks like spelling or holding down a job and he consistently hallucinates, often imagining himself in fictionalized situations and accepting those situations as reality.
In all of this, Phoenix finds something to connect to, bringing Fleck to life. While his performance improves as the film goes along, he truly may be worthy of the Oscar consideration he’s receiving even if the performance borders on overacting. His physical transformation and ability to contort his body as he manages to find the character merit credit. Also, his laugh transcends the film, truly haunting the viewer and forcing the audience to understand his psychosis.
The supporting cast is also remarkably talented. De Niro appears to enjoy his turn as Murray Franklin, a popular late-night talk show host with a penchant for insults. In particular, his scenes with Phoenix are the best of the film, echoing “King of Comedy,” “Network” and Phoenix’s own visible discomfort in the talk show setting as a celebrity. Consistent veteran actors also appear like Brett Cullen, Shea Wigham, Bill Camp, Glen Fleshler and awe-inspiring newcomers Zazie Beets and Brian Tyree Henry. Both Beets and Henry have shined on FX’s “Atlanta” in recent years and Henry, in particular, uses his highly limited screen time to maximum effect.
“Joker” is still far from perfect. While its strongest moments rely on homage to ’70s films, its weakest rely on connecting to the greater Batman mythology. Every time a character mentions the fact the film takes place in Gotham rather than New York, or a scene takes place at Wayne Manor or Arkham Mental Hospital, the film takes a step back. Cullen’s performance as Thomas Wayne, a wealthy, establishment mayoral candidate, does feel credible, but whenever he or a young Bruce Wayne is mentioned, it feels as if Phillips and screenwriter Scott Silver are stretching to accommodate Batman fans rather than making a decision they embrace.
“Joker” also feels a bit uneven, weighed down by rather consistent mixed messaging. This isn’t uncommon for a Phillips film, given that even his comedy work — “Old School” and “The Hangover” trilogy — has all suffered from similar flaws. “Joker” could make an interesting double feature with Phillips’s previous dramatic endeavor, “War Dogs.” Both films focus on hapless characters turning to crime in order to take their lives in their own hands, and both slightly succeed while coasting on blanket reference to other, better films.
As for the political controversy surrounding the film, there’s slight merit for it even if the sheer amount of conversation around the film feels exhausting. The movie even has an answer for it. In a scene where another character asks Fleck about his politics, he replies, “I don’t believe in anything. I just thought it would be good for my act.” While debate swirls about what the film says about either side of the aisle, “Joker” seems to be more interested in nihilism as a political revolution. After having a record-breaking release and outperforming box office expectations, it’s safe to say “Joker” doesn’t exactly believe in anything. While that may not make for interesting art, it certainly made for a successful act.