Directed by: Todd Phillips || Produced by: Todd Phillips, Bradley Cooper, Emma Tillinger Koskoff
Screenplay by: Todd Phillips, Scott Silver || Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen, Douglas Hodge
Music by: Hildur Guonadottir || Cinematography: Lawrence Sher || Edited by: Jeff Groth || Country: United States || Language: English
Running Time: 122 minutes
The inexplicable downside to so many films, most of which are blockbusters, being inspired by popular comics is that they have such similar tones, structure, characterizations, and watered down, broad audience appeal. Like any artistic medium, comic or graphic novel storytelling stretches well beyond its most popular, mainstream titles (in this case, properties based on established superheroes), and even most well known titles have incredible variety beyond what’s adapted to other media. The reality of contemporary blockbuster filmmaking, however, is that so many comic book blockbusters feel copy-and-pasted — cookie-cutter films, for lack of a better term — despite being created by so many different writers, directors, and studios. People can dissect the production-design consistency of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU, 2008-present) in comparison to the executive nightmare that was the DCEU, or argue about how much better older X-Men (2000, 2002, 2006) films are than recent ones, but examining these movies together with the benefit of hindsight reveals how homogeneous this ongoing superhero blockbuster movement is. Films that transcend this stereotype like The Dark Knight (2008) and Logan (2017) are the exceptions to the rule, and anyone who argues otherwise is kidding themselves or lying.
One of the latest comic-inspired titles alleged to be another exception to the comic blockbuster rule is Todd Phillips’ Joker, a sort of unofficial origin story about the legendary eponymous villain of Batman lore. Popular opinion of writer-producer-director Phillips is high due to his numerous successful comedies like Road Trip (2000), Old School (2003), Starsky & Hutch (2004), Due Date (2010), and The Hangover Trilogy (2009, 2011, 2013), while critical and cinephile reception to his work is mixed.
Like Adam McKay, another popular filmmaker who rose to prominence in the 2000s for his lighthearted satires (e.g. Anchorman [2004, 2013], Talladega Nights , Step Brothers , The Other Guys ) but has since transitioned to darker, more dramatic material like The Big Short (2015) and Vice (2018), Phillips first shifted from generic comedy with the political crime drama, War Dogs (2016). 2019’s Joker, a dramatic reinterpretation of a character already portrayed with complete sincerity by Heath Ledger in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight, is most notable relative to its Hollywood brethren for being (1) devoid of any major action sequences whatsoever and (2) the first R-rated (15-rating in the United Kingdom) film ever to break $1 billion worldwide.
What’s most interesting to me, a cinephile with a significant childhood appreciation for Batman, is asking whether Joker would’ve come within spitting distance of that record had it no connection to the Batman brand. To its credit or marketing risk, Phillips’ anti-blockbuster panders to no particular audience, doesn’t water down its morbid, adult-oriented material (its adult rating is earned), doesn’t copycat the MCU’s quips or one-liners, and commits to its standalone, dramatic character-study of Joaquin Phoenix’s titular role.
What I like most about Joker is how much of a straightforward drama it is, how much it shares with Martin Scorsese pictures like Taxi Driver (1976) and The King of Comedy (1982). Joker could be described as a modern blend of the two, drawing inspiration from the moody, downtrodden tone and violent urges of De Niro in the former, as well as the mental delusions and dark comedy elements of De Niro in the latter. De Niro’s presence in a key supporting role in Joker seems to confirm this, with much of the tangential diegetic connections to the Batman mythos feeling almost incidental.
As much as I enjoyed parts of the film and admire the crew’s dedication to “a different kind of comic book-movie (how many times has that phrase been uttered in a movie review this past decade?),” I’m afraid my assessment of this picture is closer to its critical reaction than the audience reception. Phoenix’s lead performance is good, but his character is an impotent, passive, stereotypical loser for the majority of the film, with little to no agency or believable wit to define him as anything other than another mentally ill, poverty-stricken sucker. The film’s gratuitous flirtation with Phoenix’s central epiphany — that his mentally disturbed mother deceived him his entire life, that he is medically and emotionally delusional — is so telegraphed as to be comical, as is a pointless subplot involving Phoenix’s delusions about Zazie Beetz.
The most effective parts of Joker, I argue, have to do with (a) the story’s broader commentary on social unrest and mob violence, which is captivating by story’s end, and (b) Phoenix’s protagonist asserting himself in violent, weird, and unexpected ways. The film is at its strongest when these elements overlap, like the intense scuffle between Phoenix and several American Psycho (2000)-assholes that exacerbates class warfare throughout Gotham City, or the exciting sequence where two detectives try to apprehend Phoenix amidst a city protest. How the larger societal order around Phoenix deteriorates as he gains agency, perhaps coincidentally or not, and how he becomes a sort of accidental mascot for cultural anarchy, is interesting. This stands in stark contrast to our protagonist’s inept helplessness throughout the movie’s first two acts.
I enjoyed the film well enough, but remain baffled at its overwhelming box office success and the incredible reactions it produced from cinephiles whose opinions I respect. The film achieves its limited goals — imitating a Scorsese movie that stars Robert De Niro in a lead rather than a supporting role — but I reiterate my original criticism of comic book-movies with regards to this film, despite it having virtually nothing in common with most comic-book films in actual content: If this movie had no brand connection to a popular comic intellectual property, a fraction of the audiences who attended the film as is would’ve patronized it, and serious criticism of this movie would’ve been that much harsher because there would be no curve against which to judge it.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Joker (2019) doesn’t have to be as powerful as The Dark Knight or Taxi Driver to be worth a watch, but the best movie of the year a cliched retelling of a social outcast underdog story does not make. Phoenix’s performance is beside the point if his character and actions are meaningless.
— However… Joker is a good-looking, good-sounding film thanks to cinematographer Lawrence Sher and composer Hildur Guonadottir, which accentuates the film’s story when that story is not focused on beating Fleck to a pulp.
—> ON THE FENCE: The movie has seduced enough audiences to gross $1 billion, which shouldn’t be sneezed at. However, examining Joker outside the context of superhero-related adaptations demonstrates how quaint its dramatic appeal is.
? Nothing is less foreboding than a detailed backstory.