REVIEW: While ‘Joker’ is interesting, like it’s character, it’s somewhat lost

In just over a decade there have been three different versions of the Joker on screen. Considering that rate, we’re due for several more in the 2020s. Yay?

The most recent film featuring the Clown Prince of Crime stars Joaquin Phoenix in the lead role. However, he doesn’t start out as the Joker. Instead, the movie opens with Phoenix playing Arthur Fleck, a troubled man working as an entertainment clown who aspires to be a stand-up comedian.

On top of being a mentally ill person who lives in a community comfortable with slashing health services, Arthur is also responsible for caring for his sick mother. One of the only bits of happiness in his life comes from watching a show featuring comedian Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro). Unfortunately, pressure Arthur experiences daily begins to crack him, setting him on a violent path.

Directed and co-written by Todd Phillips, “Joker” is a commendable effort to flip the comic book movie idea on its head. Not that there haven’t been comic book movies that go off the beaten path, with past entries such as “The Crow” and “Blade” offering something different than super heroes. However, this is one that goes in a really different route with a character study.

It creates a fairly compelling movie about a person on a downward spiral who’s going to eventually crash. As a whole, when looking at it as an origin story for one of the most famous villains, it’s an interesting watch.

Yet at the same time, the movie often feels more shallow than one would like. The movie seems to attempt touching on several subjects but never comes across like it has something to say about it.

JokerBlog
Courtesy Warner Bros.

One of the reasons it has trouble providing a commentary is because it takes place in what seems to be the 1970s. That wouldn’t be a problem if this was just a period piece, but the movie seems to want to talk about issues like protesting the rich, income inequality and cuts to mental healthcare.

The issue is these are issues of today, and the only reason Phillips and company seemed to want to have “Joker” in the 1970s was to share the look of Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver.”

As the narrative plays out, the movie seems to run out steam rather than building toward something, too.

All it does build to is a climax that comes off as pretentious without much depth. It’s not just in the finale, though. There are a few moments where the movie feels a bit full of itself, such as several moments where Fleck is dancing in slow motion.

Another issue with “Joker” is it’s odd relationship with its source material. The movie in some points stands as its own thing. The city could easily be renamed New York in some parts. However, there are other times where it really wants to be associated with Batman, so much so that it’s like the filmmakers are nudging you with their elbow. It’s as if it couldn’t pick a lane. It’s especially a problem since an entire sub-plot is devoted to a Batman-related subject.

Of course the picture as a whole is given a massive boost by the always reliable Phoenix who throws everything he has into this flick. Phoenix is terrific as the troubled character. Whether it’s his tone of voice or his mannerisms, Phoenix portrays the Joker in immensely convincing fashion.

“Joker” is also a very well put together movie technically. The film is quite beautifully shot and while one can tell where the inspiration lies, it doesn’t make the movie any less good to look at.

In a way, “Joker” reminds me of Phillips’ 2016 film “War Dogs.” It was a film with a very nice aesthetic, good acting and an interesting concept, but lacked depth in delivering its social commentary. The same is very true for “Joker.”

As a villain origin story, this one is above average. It can hold a person’s attention with its thrills and because the character study lends enough interest, plus Phoenix is great. However, it doesn’t dig as deep as one would hope. 3 out of 5.

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Author: Matthew Liedke

I'm a reporter for the Bemidji Pioneer in Minnesota, and I also have a passion for the art of film. This passion led me to start writing about film in 2008. From 2008-2016 I wrote pieces at my own website, After the Movie Reviews. Then, from 2016-May 2018, my write-ups were featured on AreaVoices, a blog network run by Forum Communications Company. Today, I write film reviews and other pieces here on Word Press. More about me: I'm a 2009 graduate of Rainy River College and a 2012 graduate of Minnesota State University in Moorhead. At MSU, I studied journalism and film. Outside of movies, I enjoy sports, video games, anime and craft beers.

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