Well...here we are. Just as Joaquin Phoenix gleefully descends down the stairs into full, unadulterated madness, we now must descend into full Joker movie discourse. And it is...complicated, to say the least. What we have here is a brilliant, masterclass performance within a good piece. However, it's a piece that doesn't quite land all its punches. Full disclosure: This is a very difficult film to review. But let's give it a shot, shall we?
Let's start with Joaquin Phoenix. I believe wholeheartedly that this is our Best Actor winner for the next Academy Awards. I've never seen someone slam dunk a win quite like this. What he achieves here is nothing short of haunting. Sure, there are aspects of different versions of this character (hard to deny the fact that this version NEEDS the Ledger take to exist), but the Arthur Fleck elements of the story are brought to life with so much raw pain. So much fear. So many precise, unsettling choices. It really is a sight to behold. The entire theater was captivated by him. And the supporting players are great too, even when matched against Phoenix's scene stealing moments. Zazie Beetz and Robert De Niro in particular turn in great work. Each character acts as a strong lens through which we view Arthur, and later, The Joker. Seeing his slow, creeping impact on them as a microcosm for his influence on the city is one of the stronger aspects of the film. Everyone serves as an avatar for one of the core issues the story is hitting, and therefore one of the things plaguing the soon to be Harlequin of Hate.
But what of the story? The build to the punchline, if you will. Well, that's a tad more difficult to talk about.
Now, first things first: No spoilers here. No need to worry about that. But what I can say is this: I feel very mixed about whether or not director Todd Phillips achieves all of the goals he sets here. The film very blatantly sets out to dissect sociopolitical issues in the realms of mental illness, class divisions, law enforcement, and more. But it's hard to shake the feeling that the film glides across the surface of some of its ideas rather than fully exploring them. And with that lingering comes a problematic side effect: Joker's "coolness" as a character overshadows the cautionary tale that sits at the core of the narrative. He's been mythologized in our pop culture, and so that aura is carried here into the work. But it verges too close on glorification, especially with the perils of real life and our current social battles looming over us while we watch. And I think it could be a story of a descent, and a gradual metamorphosis, but the run time of a single film doesn't exactly lend itself to fully explore both forms of this lead character.
Ultimately, it takes way too long for us to root against him. This isn't a perfectly executed fall from grace, like in Breaking Bad, for example. I feel like the story is trying to convey the idea that the wrong societal pathways can create a monster, but the film can't resist the sexy, brutal revenge aspects. It can't resist the style. It can't resist its desire to flex its muscles, and I get it. You want to dazzle and revel in the shock and awe of this character (especially given the fact that this is the first R-rated live action iteration). He isn't the Clown Prince of Crime for nothing. And the film DOES bring it when it comes to violence, imagery, and trickery. There's twists and turns to thrill you, and gory kills to repulse you. But it's difficult to not wonder if the themes get lost in the shuffle. It's hard to stop the feeling that the audience around you is a little too invested in The Joker's quest, in a villain worship type way. And that boils down to Phillips's sympathetic story line. As I said up top, this is a film that's extremely difficult for me to review, and that's because it feels like it's struggling with itself to a degree. And I can't tell if Todd Phillips is fully condemning Joker in the same way that it appears Joaquin wants to. Sometimes it hits SPECTACULARLY, and other times it feels like they're making slightly different films. Two sides of the coin. A very difficult tightrope walk, no doubt. But it is noticeable and it took me out of the experience at times.
But with all that said, the artistry in the direction is top notch. Some gorgeous shots. Some perfectly placed needle drops. The depiction of Gotham City is one of the best yet. I didn't realize how much of an origin it would be for the city itself. And then when you look at dialogue and editing, you've got two more very strong aspects. It really is excellent work all around, it's just that the reach exceeds the grasp, as they say. But on the level of a thrill ride and an acting clinic, it works.
Check it out for sure. Just don't bring the kids. (Seriously, don't.)