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3 ½ (out of 4)
Even with a resemblance to Lynne Ramsay’s fiery You Were Never Really Here a few years back and roots soundly planted in Martin Scorsese’s revered early history – Taxi Driver and most directly The King of Comedy – Joker is nonetheless a 2019 movie mile marker all its own. DC's latest standalone success is more meritorious than your garden-variety comic book movie, but is it as hazardous to mass consciousness as was preordained? Would it be such a bad thing if it were?
So despite an unwarranted forecast of devastation before this film's debut, obviously no one was slaughtered and anyone who feared and/or expected some eruption of white male aggression at the cinema should have felt a tart combination of shame and chagrin. As a film alone though, my prior wariness to whatever variety of villain exposé I was walking into was due entirely to Todd Phillips' place at the helm. With the overrated quintet of Old School, the Hangover trilogy and Due Date behind him, the symptomatic normalization of boyish men seemed to make Phillips precisely the wrong choice to handle material so potentially inflammatory and disruptive. Little did I expect some realist themes, such gorgeously candid digital cinematography or third act risks so ballsy – the cumulative moments of insanity alone are enough to destine Joker the status of cult favorite at the very least and deservingly so. This near-masterpiece enriches DC with the best of the brand's preceding year of consecutive solo features: the underrated Aquaman, Shazam!'s undeniable appeal and now Joker's timely, ferocious acting showcase.
The remarkably provocative movie around Joaquin Phoenix eclipsed my middling expectations, but it is the Method (acting) Man himself who quickly quiets every other reservation. Phoenix's marvelous commitment exponentially amplifies the film's cinematic power – then again, try not capturing documented gold after a spell with Phoenix and an expensive camera. Sure, Heath Ledger’s role will reign supreme forever as the exquisite capper to an all too brief legacy because, ya know, he's the best part of the cultural touchstone that was The Dark Knight – though when you watch Phoenix there’s nothing reminding you of Ledger, Jack Nicholson or anyone else. It’s almost as if you didn’t need Phillips or any direction whatsoever to mold Phoenix's utterly feral exertions, especially after a decade of mesmerizing performances (The Master, Inherent Vice, YWNRH). His magnetic, impeccable role-playing averts not only foolishly portraying mental illness but also pissing off comic book disciples.
Of course, given how divisive this film has been even ahead of hitting theaters, there’s no denying how many feathers have been ruffled, or maybe even plucked, in public or critical circles. The philosophical backbone of the film – that seedy, spiteful nihilism – will rigidly appeal to the most dejected members of the audience, the 4chan-browsing incels we should be oh so cautious of at the local cineplex. Just like the folks with common sense who exasperatedly oppose those claiming that callous video games and Tarantino films manifest real carnage, all I can say for the crowds using the ideology of the Joker as a liberating model for their own dispirit is let them enjoy the movie and vicariously rid themselves of a few repressed impulses as each one of us subconsciously does when we enter a dark theater.
Still, the very fact that Warner Brothers has to remind people this film is not a call to incite actual anarchy should tell you how explosive the narrative substance is and, more importantly, how little implicit trust can be placed on the general public's facility to process any subtextual satire, irony or motifs nowadays. This is without mentioning how swiftly pop culture journalists and easily offended social media users will scramble to scandalize anything incongruous with their worldview. The whole sick escapism/heinous portrait angle of Joker, in addition to the unreliable narrator ticks and classist rage within, screams American Psycho more than any Marty film. Hilarious, horrifying – it's an incredibly fine line and Phoenix is there to disguise the spaces between pity and empathy, catharsis and disgust better than the much less enthralling script.
Even if you loathe this film in its entirety you’re bound to ponder it significantly more than the movies you casually despise. Certain screenwriting tropes are so completely smoothed over by Phoenix's unshackled lunacy – clichés become a non-issue when trying to distinguish between a main character's prescribed nuttiness and our lead actor's eccentric, undefined personal level of crazy. I'm sure many will find fault in aspects of the film's composition, but my only real grievance is Arthur Fleck inflicted revolutionary change occurs almost entirely without his impetus. Fleck's largely accidental V for Vendetta-esque symbol of collective resistance doesn't really reflect the character's renowned ingenious mastermind.
In fact, other than the intriguing psychopathy, all Joker really seems to have in common with DC is the new wrinkle in portraying the Wayne's as ignorant, elitist yuppies. DC and WB apparently have learned antithetical prudence is the way to outsmart, or at least counter, Marvel’s epic monopolizing – simply by stripping the blockbuster masquerade to the essentials with thrifty filmmaking, Joker became the most profitable superhero film of all time in the wake of Endgame's record-annihilating run. Whether absorbed by overeager nerds or average Joes, it's rather infrequent that a mainstream standalone character study warranted intense dissection or considerable pondering, let alone one billion dollars in earnings (a first for R-rated films). From whichever perspective, if all else is overlooked, it's impossible to ignore Phoenix's rare sensibilities.
To keep it brief...
Soon to Come:
The Rise of Skywalker
A Hidden Life
"So what've you been up to?"
"Escaping mostly... and I escape real good."
- Inherent Vice