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Joker, Reviewed: An Empty Beauty Full of Anxious Laughter

Please welcome new contributor Michael Frank...

by Michael Frank

The circus around Joker has been exhausting. It’s been a nonstop argument between every single person that posts a positive or negative review, causing friction between subgroups you didn’t even know existed. I admit I found myself having trouble separating the discourse from the film itself. I couldn’t forget the unfortunate interviews given by director Todd Phillips. When I sat in the packed-to-the-brim theater, my head was filled with expectations, anxiety, and the dozens of headlines, articles, and think-pieces I’ve read over the past few weeks. 

I’ve never seen a film provide so much discourse outside the screen, yet feel this empty and broken once it's playing in the confines of a theater. Joker is gorgeous, though, and unrelenting in its violence and instability, by way of both the titular character and its striking visuals...

It’s uncomfortable, doling out plenty of anxiety via Phoenix’s physical portrayal of Arthur Fleck to an audience desperate to find empathy in his decisions. I found myself checking the exits more often than I’d like to admit and each noise was being treated with the utmost concern. The movie was forgettable, while the experience was far from that.

Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal of this Batman villain’s origin story is mesmerizing, though. He fills up every scene with initial subtlety and follows that up with pure anger, frustration, and sadness. Fleck's mental illness is on full display, even if the screenplay isn’t giving it proper attention. Phoenix’s commitment to the role is evident by both the weight loss and the emotional weight. He’s likely to receive an Oscar nomination in return. 

The violence in the movie isn’t the sort of big blow-up or cosmic gunfights of other big-budget action films, superhero variety or otherwise. Every death feels up-close and personal like we are in the room, and the effect is one of shock, not understanding. The violence lacks a tactness, or empathy yet Phillips wants us to be feeling for this man, stepping into the streets with him, fighting his good fight. It’s true that I couldn’t look away, and he should be given credit for that. 

My fellow theatre-goers clapped when the Joker killed and laughed when the hero laughed his high pitched cackle. The Joker isn’t a hero, though, and this origin story doesn’t change that. He’s a mentally ill man with a past rife with abuse and neglect. Giving him this story feels like Phillips is trying to send a message, trying to make a movie that hits with impact, but the only impact was from the grit, the violence, and the commitment of Phoenix, not the character’s supposed evolution. 

Joker grapples with mental illness, a tough topic to cover, an important one to cover. The film grapples with it but is always reaching for the next ledge, the next rock, and slips and falls. It doesn’t give depth to the illness, only to say that Arthur was abused. It doesn’t dive into his daily sadness, pain, or troubles. It pins this situation all on an absent government in the form of Thomas Wayne and in an absent mother in Penny Fleck. The message doesn’t seem clear, then. How do we solve these problems and how do we give credence to what mentally ill people are saying and feeling? Phillips doesn’t give any solutions, nor does he try. He’s only in the business of blame. He moves the story along with a killing and a new thirst for attention by way of violence. 

As a result the movie feels void of meaning and consequence, slapped together with a rockstar in Phoenix and stunning cinematography, but falling flat due to a shoddy script and a failure to resonate.  This movie, one that’s dominating the box office, social media, and the film world, is just another comic book story that didn’t need to be told.  

For some, the Joker origin might be enough. For me, it was an empty promise masquerading as a beautiful story. And all masquerades must come to an end. 


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Reader Comments (20)

I absolutely loved it. Lucrecia Martel was right.

October 5, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

I used to agree with the reviews here, and I went to the theater with a lot of prejudice and finally I was caught by the movie and the mesmerizing portrait of an abandoned mental ill person who’s carry on the shoulders by Joaquin Phoenix. (Sometimes this image is quiet literal). The movie reminded me another unsympathetic portrait of a character, such as There Willy be blood and some cathartic aspects of Wild Tales (minus the humor)
The message seems to me closer to the idea that every society got the villains it deserves (including the isolated references to the elites).
I’m not a fan of superheroes movies. Maybe that’s why the movie really paid off for me.

October 5, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterHernan

"The Circus around Joker has been exhausting"

Get off twitter and stop reading everyone's opinion .. in other words, and I mean this in the very best way .. get a life & just watch the movie.

October 5, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterDoheny

The actor made to play the character and the character made to be played by the actor.

October 5, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterSe_bas_tian

One of the best movies of the year. Period.

October 5, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterSomeone

I’ll be glad when the discourse surrounding this film has died down. I didn’t hate it. I just found it flat (in spite of Phoenix’s commendable efforts). If anything, it made me wish I was watching Taxi Driver or You Were Never Really Here again.

It also made me look up this year’s Venice jury, and guys, Martel and Prieto aside, I can’t say I put much stock in that bunch’s tastes.

October 5, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMJ

Just saw it. Phoenix was phenomenal. Could not take my eyes off of him. The movie really worked for me bit it's the Joaquin show all the way. I would put his performance up there with Ledger in Brokeback Mountain and Day Lewis in There Will Be Blood as my favorite male performances of this century.

October 5, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMichael R

I echo MJs sentiments. I liked it enough but it’s not a great film and Phoenix, while certainly mesmerizing, is a little over the top here. I’d say it’s closer to Commodus than Freddie Quell.

October 5, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterSawyer

This is the best film I’ve seen all year. Devastating performance by Phoenix!!!

October 5, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterDAVID

I must also disagree, while I wouldn't quite call it dangerous, I think this is an unforgettable cinematic experience and a brilliant throwback to the films of Martin Scorsese from the 1970s-1980s (it can't be a coincidence that they cast Robert DeNiro in that role, which is also a brilliant double-joke seeing that he's known for being one of the worst hosts SNL has ever had). Is it maybe a tad toothless? Of course it is, it's a mainstream Hollywood film, but for what usually come out of mainstream Hollywood films, having one that not only takes such a long and hard look at mental illness, but also creates a society very similar to ours that, through apathy and neglect, allows a Joker to emerge.

October 5, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterRichter Scale

The screenplay couldnt mitigate the context of the narrative or the many levels Joaquin offered. It had a lot of great ideas the screenplay could not pay the bill for. So heavy handed and talky yet...empty. but still evocative. Definitely better than anything Todd has done by far, but still wouldve been a far better movie in surer hands.

October 6, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterkris01

The Question is "Could Phoenix like Ledger also win an oscar for the same Role"? DeNiro and Brando won, but its another kind of Role. Phoenix has the bonus of being overdue. Isn´t he?

October 6, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterPatrick

Audiences clapping at violence is a societal red flag. I had the same problem with the Tarantino film. This film was violent, depressing and pointless.

October 6, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterTF

I have zero interest in this film

October 6, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterJaragon

"failure to resonate" - are you kidding me?

"This movie is just another comic book story that didn’t need to be told." - this is quite literally the best Joker performance ever, and it's also a center-piece story, so...

Sometimes the critics get it wrong, incredibly wrong.

No, this is not a perfect film, but it was a powerhouse-incredibly moving experience

October 6, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterYavor

I despise all things comic bookish or superheroic (all lumped into the genre that I call “robots and aliens”). When announced, this film sounded like more of the same, but the trailer got me in the door. This was something else! I loved everything about Joker and will definitely go again this week. Phoenix always dives deep, but this was a knockout performance. The way his body moves, his laughter through tears, his ability to come across as pathetic and sexy at the same time... absolute perfection. Sure, it plays with complicated perspectives (I’ll admit cheering for some of his violent acts while being terrified and completely not on his side for others... that unresolved scene toward the end in the wrong apartment had me anxious as hell), but aren’t complicated characters and examination of the difficult complexity of humans what we’re always looking for in cinema?!? I don’t see why it’s controversial to have a villain that also inspires sympathy. People are multifaceted and can be simultaneously worthy of both our affection and our scorn. It seems many (including this reviewer) are unable to embrace that duality and prefer stories that spell out clearly for us what is right and wrong and movies that give us answers instead of asking questions (where as for me, that kind of oversimplification of morality is one of the main reasons I can’t get into the traditional superhero genre).

As for Oscars, anything less than Joaquin winning the trophy would be an outright travesty, though Best Actor this century has been one major disappointment after another (the only two deserving winners being Day-Lewis in ‘07 and Dujardin in ‘11) and Phoenix was already robbed this decade for The Master.

October 6, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterDoug

I’m in the minority as I found it to be tedious - and that’s about the nicest thing I’d say about it. Bold of the director to so frequently borrow from/reference other similar works, all of which I’d say were better/more effective. Maybe my view would change if there were clearer markers about which parts were “real” vs. imagined, but I didn’t find it constructed cohesively enough to clarify that.

October 6, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterScottC

I love Joaquin Phoenix but found this performance to be uneven. Some of the choices he made just rang false and distracting ie the laugh etc. He does improve in the latter half of the film.

October 8, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterEegah

Best movie I've seen in a while. You should pay less attention to the buzz and more attention to the movie itself.

October 9, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterLuiz Carlos

I love this movie. I wanna more films like this

October 13, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMarek

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