Todd Phillips’ ‘Joker’ is dark, disturbing, and brilliant

How did the Joker go mad?

A riddle that hasn’t been tested completely in Hollywood, only lavishing around in comic books, sifting through the cerebellum of geeks who lived inside those pages … until now.

Todd Phillip’s Joker dives headfirst into that morally corrupt conundrum, investigating the disappearance of one Arthur Fleck and the emergence of a man who would become an agent of chaos in Gotham City.

I’ll be quite honest with you. Joker is easily the darkest, most disturbing, and boldest comic book adaptation yet. In order to pull that off, Phillips needed an actor who was willing to go there, and he found it in Joaquin Phoenix.

When we first see Fleck, he’s staring painfully into a mirror while applying makeup, covering his face in order to hopefully fit in better with society. One would say it’s a doomed mission. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure things are going to tumble downhill for Fleck, but Phillips-working with a script he wrote with Scott Silver-slows the dial down, letting us inside Arthur’s head.

Playing the sympathetic yet obviously not right in the head Fleck, Phoenix’s delicate sensibility fits the role to a tee right off the bat. A man trying to do good, carrying the simple goal of making people laugh. When he’s not dressed as a clown urging you to buy discounted furniture while swinging a large sign on the street, Fleck aspires to be a stand-up comedian. A job title that is harder than it looks, especially for a guy who spent time in the insane asylum at Arkham.

When Fleck is constantly bullied, isolated from people he tries to connect, and literally beaten to a pulp, he decides to push back. This results in the kind of violence that is startling and disturbing. Fleck doesn’t have any superpowers or high tech gadgets to break out of his inferiority complex with, so he uses bare essentials to find his way. Couple this with a crumbling Gotham City, and you have triggered a deadly civil war.

If you think Phillips wants you to feel sorry for Phoenix’s Fleck, think again. He’s not asking for your tears. All he is and Silver do here is shine a light on the current climate by using a famous comic villain. They take what we think we know, look and demeanor, and strip it down, showing us what lies beneath a mad man’s intent. One could say he’s pulling back the curtain and showing us what’s wrong with the world, and he wouldn’t be right. People are shot and killed in a disruptive way inside a destructive world every single day, so I’m not sure why putting it up on a screen should exist as cause and effect.

Art shouldn’t have a cap put on top of it. If you tell an artist to stop going there or not reach too deep, you’re crippling the future creatives and asking for more reboots, remakes, and sequels. Let’s not go there. It’s important to embrace bold takes like Phillips’ film here. This is a wholly unique and original take on a familiar character that also speaks to the current climate. Nobody complained when Heath Ledger’s Joker murdered a cop or innocent in The Dark Knight, but somehow now, it’s too much.

Once again, Phoenix makes it all work. He’s masterful here, crawling inside the dark soul of Arthur, constantly turning on and smashing any light that finds its way in there. Arthur has a repetitive and random laugh that he tells strangers is connected to a neurological disorder acquired at a young age. You could make fun of him and he will just start laughing. Cackling loud, as if he’s trying to snuff something out in his thoughts. Phoenix doesn’t treat it like a gimmick, instead using it as a badge of sorrow. While you won’t feel sorry for Arthur or embrace his behavior, Phoenix makes sure you never take your eyes off him.

He’s so good that a supporting cast doesn’t have to do much heavy lifting. Zazie Beets (so good in Deadpool 2) plays a love interest for Arthur that includes a clever story hook, but not a particularly layered performance. Frances Conroy makes for an endearing Penny Fleck initially, but doesn’t stretch much as the film unfolds. Brett Cullen, Bill Camp, and Shea Whigham rely on previous quirks in their resumes to give wooden performances.

As a talk show host whom Arthur idolizes, Robert De Niro gets the flashiest role out of Phoenix and does well enough with it, but he also relies on De Niro-isms to produce a solid performance. That’s not especially bad, but everything he does here you’ve seen before.

The same can’t be said about Phoenix. I personally can’t say it enough. He is the epitome of risk here, showing us shades of his repertoire that only got teaser trailers in previous roles.

Here’s the thing. Joker will rock you morally, and probably make you uncomfortable. The violence and overall tone is unsettling, even if the snazzy and jazzy soundtrack keeps things light at times. The aesthetic and production design brings to mind a comic book mixed with a film from the 1980’s.

You bet Martin Scorsese was an influence for the co-writer-director here. Everything from De Niro’s character to the shots that Phillips chooses screams of a young Scorsese, and that’s not a bad thing. Quentin Tarantino pulled most of his inspiration from films, as did any director. You have to make a movie with your inspiration, and that’s harder than it looks. A maker of hilarious comedy, Phillips truly went for broke here.

Here’s what I know. Making a great Joker film without Ledger was a tall order, but Phillips and Phoenix pull if off.

As the previous mad man would say, they’ve changed things … in a big way.

I’d give Phoenix the award right now. Phillips and company should be in the conversation as well. They did something.

The final 20 minutes of the film, where Phillips pays homage to the comic book history of the character and the world he lives in while leaning into his own vision, is simply brilliant. You’ll want to watch the ending over and over again.

Plus, they play my favorite Frank Sinatra song, “That’s Life,” many times. You can’t go wrong there.

Faced with a seemingly impossible task and immediate blowback, Phillips could have went very wrong here.

He ended up making an astonishing film with only one truly memorable performance.

If you pass this movie up, the joke is on you.

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