Directed by Todd Phillips
Joaquin Phoenix’s significant weight loss must have made it more difficult to carry “Joker” on his back like that. Obviously, without a superhero to act as Joker’s foil, we knew the success of “Joker” would rely almost entirely on Phoenix’s performance. To my relief, he delivers something worthy of an Oscar nomination, at least in a year where Lead Actor performances have been—in my experience so far—rather underwhelming. Despite exposing his ribcage so much I have to believe it was a paid sponsorship—as if to say, over and over again, “Look how committed I was to losing weight for this role”—Phoenix’s deeply unsettling performance as The Clown Prince of Crime served as a really fascinating peek into the psyche of a lone wolf…not condoning incel violence—as the media (and the goddamn U.S. military) might lead you to believe—but peeling it apart and exposing the systems that might cause it.
Working as a for-hire clown (with aspirations of becoming a stand-up comedian) and taking care of his mentally ill mother has left Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) at the end of his rope. When the already shaky social services system that provides Arthur with his medication and counseling has its funding pulled, the rock bottom Arthur was experiencing plummets even further. Arthur becomes deeply troubled and turns to crime because there is simply nothing else left.
Director Todd Phillips is best known for “The Hangover” and for recently saying some stupid shit about turning away from comedy because people became too sensitive. It comes as a surprise, then, that Phillips (who serves as screenwriter alongside Scott Silver, best known for “8 Mile” and “The Fighter”) would be capable of offering up such a rich character study like “Joker.” This is so far from a comic book or superhero movie that it would’ve worked just fine if it wasn’t about the Joker at all. Arthur Fleck isn’t a “supervillain”—he’s a deranged man whose pills are no longer covered by the government. “Joker” is about America’s poor treatment of its worst-off, and what can happen in the most extreme cases. “Joker” is dark and perverse, of course, and not always rooted in total reality, but at the end of the day, it’s a believable story of a man, forgotten by society, who sees violence as his method of righting the wrongs of his life. We get to witness the moments that made the man we knew in “The Dark Knight.” This means that we miss out on the all-out chaos of Heath Ledger’s Joker character, but instead, we get something more interesting…humanity.
“Joker” manages to humanize a longstanding, oft-portrayed comic book character while giving audiences an origin story that isn’t boring, that stands on its own, and that provides extra depth to a character so many people already know a lot about. That’s a pretty remarkable accomplishment (too-obvious “homages” to movies like “Taxi Driver” and “The Last King of Comedy” aside).