Review: Joker (2019)

Joker (2019)

Directed by: Todd Phillips | 121 minutes | crime, drama | Actors: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen, Shea Whigham, Bill Camp, Glenn Fleshler, Leigh Gill, Josh Pais, Rocco Luna, Marc Maron, Sondra James, Murphy Guyer

The green hair, the long purple tailcoat, the white-painted face and the sardonic grin that just won’t go away. Ever since The Joker first showed himself as Batman’s nemesis in DC Comics comics in 1940, he’s always looked the same. In all his exuberance, he is a great polar opposite of the understated Batman; where the bat man strives for order, tranquility and regularity, The Joker stands for chaos, riot and destruction. On the silver screen, The Joker has evolved: Cesar Romero (‘Batman: The Movie’ (1966) and the 1960s TV series starring Adam West as Batman) stuck to smoke bombs and modest thefts, while Jack Nicholson (Tim Burton’s ‘Batman’, 1989) fought a personal feud with Bruce Wayne, killing innocent victims. Nicholson’s version of The Joker was long regarded as the ultimate version, until Heath Ledger outclassed him with his masterly, maniacal portrayal in Christopher Nolan’s ‘The Dark Knight’ (2008). An anarchist terrorist who has completely thrown all morality overboard and is the personification of chaos, death and destruction. Ledger was so absorbed in his role that he started to suffer. He finally passed away in January 2008, a few weeks before he was awarded a posthumous Oscar for what would later turn out to be the best role of his life. Jared Leto couldn’t really pull off his androgynous version of The Joker in ‘Suicide Squad’ (2016). Who can approach Ledgers Joker in terms of intensity is Joaquin Phoenix in the grim ‘Joker’ (2019) by Todd Phillips.

‘Joker’ is a film that causes a lot of controversy even before it even hits the cinemas. Phillips’ ambitious character study won the Golden Lion for best film at the Cannes Film Festival. Immediately afterwards, there were voices – mainly in the United States – that ‘Joker’ is a dangerous film that, in this age of mass shootings, might give people ideas. Lone wolves who feel somehow disconnected from society, misunderstood, not accepted, or unappreciated, may see it as a license to take out their own frustrations violently on innocent victims. A discussion that has been going on before, after a deranged man started shooting around him in 2012 during a screening of ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ (2012) in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, killing 12 people. Partly for this reason, the authorities in the US are on alert around showings of ‘Joker’. Overdone? Yes. A film in itself is not dangerous and people who are so screwed up that they take this kind of action will tragically want to carry out their deed anyway, even without a film about crazy lone wolves.

It is remarkable that it is Todd Phillips, the man behind the ‘Hangover’ trilogy, who gives the superhero genre a new dimension. He reportedly had a picture of Joaquin Phoenix hanging over his computer when he wrote the screenplay. And let’s be honest, it’s hard to imagine another actor in this role. Phoenix plays Arthur Fleck, a skinny street clown who lives with his physically challenged mother Penny (Frances Conroy) in a dingy apartment in Gotham City. It’s 1981 and the atmosphere in the city is dark and brooding. The gap between rich and poor is widening by the day and Gotham is getting dirtier by the striking garbage collectors. In this world Arthur tries to play a significant role. ‘Make people laugh’, his mother has always told him and that’s what he tries to do. But right away in the first scene we see how he is robbed and beaten up by rowdy boys and is left behind in a dark alley as a pathetic heap of human beings. Arthur has had mental problems all his life, takes an impressive amount of medication and talks to a social worker every week, who can’t really help him. He dreams of a career as a stand-up comedian and an appearance on Murray Franklin’s (Robert De Niro’s) hit talk show, but because he has a condition that makes him burst out laughing at the most unfortunate moments, and neither are his jokes. are too strong, it seems impossible that he will ever make that dream come true. Besides his needy mother, his friendly neighbor Sophie (Zazie Beetz) seems to be the only one who sees him at all. A fellow clown offers Arthur a gun so he can defend himself if he is robbed again. But when that gun falls out of his pocket during a job at a children’s hospital, he’s fired. When he loses his medication and counseling due to budget cuts, the frustrations and problems pile up. To eventually erupt.

Fleck is a psychological wreck that cannot (well) distinguish between reality and fantasy. Initially, our sympathy—or rather, our pity—is with him. We have an idea of ​​what it must be like to be humiliated every day, how such a desolate environment can affect how you get through your days and how difficult it is to be misunderstood. But that empathy is slowly but resolutely giving way to disgust, feelings of discomfort and unrest. Phoenix is ​​phenomenal: the actor lost many pounds and that physical weariness has an impact on his overall presence. He looks fragile and vulnerable, but is at the same time elusive, unpredictable and untouchable. It’s a physical tour de force; not only the terrifying, unstoppable fits of laughter (which are often closer to crying fits), but also the graceful and devilish dances he performs, that bony body that goes in all directions. Phoenix is ​​cut out for this kind of role and once again gives his business card here. Icelandic Hildur Gudnadottir’s beautiful, spine-chilling score and Lawrence Sher’s relentless cinematography make Gotham City the other star of this film: a grubby metropolis where overgrown rats scurry in the darkness and where little is needed to keep things going. to ignite completely.

Phillips was clearly inspired by the oeuvre of Martin Scorsese, in particular ‘Taxi Driver’ (1976) and ‘The King of Comedy’ (1982). The fact that Robert De Niro plays a crucial supporting role here is a nice nod to the master. Phoenix can certainly compete with De Niro, but Phillips is no Scorsese. It should be clear that it shows guts that he dares to provide the superhero genre with a new dimension with this grim character sketch. But it is not entirely clear where he wants to go with his film. How should we interpret Fleck’s derailment? In Phillips’ view, the violence we see is the sum of various causes, but is it really that simple? The explanation he gives is not entirely satisfactory; the deeper layer, the food for thought, is missing. At least, in the story, because Phoenix’s performance is so rich in shades that it overshadows the superficial aspect of the screenplay. It must be strange if Phoenix does not receive an Oscar nomination for this intense, penetrating and fascinating performance.

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