Because of who the character is and what he’s stood for throughout his existence, it’s easy to give a movie solely about The Joker a chance from the start. Add that there won’t be the usual restrictions we get with most other modern-day comic book movies and you realize we could be in for quite an experience. Because of these factors alone, I anticipate Joker being quite the hit at the box office. Sadly, it isn’t anywhere near as good as it could have been.
Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is struggling to find his way through the fractured city of Gotham. Recently, he’s been trying to make money as a clown-for-hire, but he dreams of becoming a standup comedian. The only problem with that is that no one takes him seriously. This and the dangers of living in the slums of the city have left him feeling stuck. All he can do is try to improve. That might help him out, but it may hurt just about everyone else around him.
Right from the beginning, there’s a dark tone that fits the city of Gotham. It also seems like the kind of place that would help create a person like The Joker and a bunch of other would-be villains. As you look around, you’ll see that this is a gritty environment that feels as dangerous as the cast of characters repeatedly say it is. That’s mainly due to its nostalgic visuals that may remind you of some major northeastern American cities back in the 1980s.
I also enjoyed the soundtrack and think it fits in with the tone they were trying to set. Throughout the movie, the soundtrack is powerful and consistent. It made you feel as if something important was happening even when absolutely nothing was happening. There’s a part of me that thinks that this was done on purpose though just to hide how empty most of the movie actually is.
After a while, I realized that nothing was actually happening in a lot of instances as most of what we get is aimless and lacks a narrative that’s anywhere near as strong as its soundtrack. As far as a story, there really isn’t much of one. We’re essentially just watching a person with mental illnesses live life. We’re not really asked to understand him or get involved all that much emotionally.
They could have used a story to really help explain how he became the guy that he’s going to become, but they don’t. Many of the “significant” events that happen to Arthur Fleck have no effect on his character development. Normally, you want the story to influence the evolution of a character. Not only does it help in creating an effective character arc, but it also gives the audience something to grasp onto as they follow the lead on his journey.
When they do attempt to build toward anything in Joker, it’s usually just them trying to connect things to the final act. They don’t spend any time figuring out how to properly develop things around its central character in the moment. It’s almost all about the final act. I won’t get into it much, but this showed me that they cared more about the impact Fleck would have on Gotham City than they did about anything else.
In that regard, it’s not really a movie about The Joker. I believe he’s in every scene, but it’s almost like he’s just a face attached to things. This is probably what leads to that sense of emptiness throughout the entire picture. When looking back on it, there may have been only one major thing that takes place that has an impact on his growth. It ends up being a big part of the story, but it’s introduced later on in the movie.
With such little focus on the development of the film’s protagonist, it’s easy to see why some of the other characters are handled the way they are. The person that stood out the most to me in this regard was Sophie (played by Zazie Beetz). She’s kind of like the love interest here, but she doesn’t do anything and is completely meaningless in the end. If you remove her, nothing in the movie changes at all.
Refocusing on the final act, for now, I’ll say that it’s quite easily the best part of the entire movie. This is the only portion of Joker where there’s any sort of proper build-up. From the early going, it’s easy to see where they were headed with the film’s conclusion, but it still works to some degree. I think some viewers will get something out of this, but it would have benefitted from having what came before it mean more.
If Joker had been more like The Killing Joke graphic novel, we would have had a higher quality movie that didn’t just spend its first two acts killing time before it got near the end. I’m not saying that these two stories should be the same. That wouldn’t have even been possible anyway when looking at the direction they took the film. What I’m saying is that they should have focused more on building the main character.
That’s what they did in that graphic novel. That turned what we were reading more into a character study. In that instance, they wanted to give readers legit reasons behind his descent into madness. This made his fall into the pits of insanity more impactful. In Joker, they patch together a few bad events in his life to show us although most of them aren’t important enough or devastating enough to justify him turning into who he’s supposed to transform into.
With that stuff not taking up much of the run time, you would think that would leave more time for a good amount of hardcore violence. With the setting being what it is and The Joker being who he is, there’s a lot of room to explore that aspect of their society. However, that doesn’t actually happen like you might expect it to either. While there is some violence in Joker, the potentially brutal stuff is only in maybe a couple of scenes in the final act.
You have one of the more memorable and damaged characters of all time at your disposal, but you don’t take it anywhere near as far as you could have. I don’t understand why you don’t go even a little further. Although it earns its R rating, it still manages to be fairly tame and could have benefitted from reaching a bit higher in regards to its graphic nature both in terms of its violence and its overall subject matter.
This version of The Joker that we get is okay, but the movie around him needed to be much stronger. The inability to create a strong narrative is ultimately what prevents this from being something to remember. Improving on that changes things drastically and even makes a solid final act better. I think some people might still like it, but I’m certain that it won’t hold up well to scrutiny. In order to do that, it would have needed more substance.
Director: Todd Phillips
Robert De Niro
Brian Tyree Henry
Film Length: 121 minutes
Release Date: October 4th, 2019
Distributor: Warner Bros. Pictures
- Score - 4/104/10