By Marc S. Sanders
It’s important to understand first and foremost, Todd Phillips’ film Joker is really not a Batman story, a comic book story or even the derivative of a Batman comic book story.
Consider the Martin Scorsese pictures Taxi Driver and The King Of Comedy. Both films focus on two different characters descending into a variation of psychological madness. Yet the the titles of each film are pretty random, generic almost. Joaquin Phoenix plays wannabe comedian Arthur Fleck (to my knowledge never a DC comics character before this film) and this latest release from Warner Bros is billed as the origin of the Joker. Nevertheless, other than calling the setting Gotham City and having a billionaire character named Thomas Wayne with a son named Bruce, there is nary any calling to the mythos that fans are so familiar with. Why not just present this film with a title called “The Comedian” for example and run with it? Calling it Joker feels like a shameless cash grab. This is not a Batman villain tale, folks.
Joaquin Phoenix is astonishing in the lead role. He’s in every scene of the film and the method to own the character of Fleck is shown both physically and mentally. The known method actor must have lost at least 75 pounds to show weird, stretching contortions that easily shown his rib cage and pale complexion. Phillips films Phoenix at times where there is no dialogue either grimacing in a mirror, randomly dancing or simply leaning his head against a cold transit bus window. Surprise moments also come with head slamming against walls or glass doors. This was not all direction by Phillips. Phoenix had to have invented some of these instances.
Robert DeNiro is an obvious nod in casting as a Merv Griffin/Johnny Carson role meant to salute the Scorsese films of his heyday. When he was the man bordering on insanity, DeNiro performed with method material. Think back to when he’s Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull bashing his head against a wall while in solitary confinement.
While Joker certainly offers probably the best performance of the year in any category, it’s not a pleasant film to watch. It lacks any sense of wryness or humor. It’s a very depressing film about a man’s inevitable descent into madness. I couldn’t take my eyes off of Phoenix in the role, but like other comic book based films it didn’t leave me wanting more. I’m not eager for a continuation of this character.
If they wanted to a popular comic character story then I wish there could have been some more slight nods to the ingredients of this pop culture legacy. Couldn’t Arthur Fleck have been mugged by Oswald Cobblepot or sidled up alongside Mr. Zzazzz? How about a quick encounter with Selina Kyle or Edward Nygma? There’s just not enough evidence here for me to accept this is a Batman tale. Again Warner Bros banked on the title and not much else.
I got my money’s worth from Phoenix and I’m gunning for him to win the Oscar (not just nominated), but I can’t help but feel a little let down as well.