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Joker (2019)

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A Happy Wednesday flashback to one of the less happy films we've looked at this year:

Joker (2019)

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I Really Need to Watch Happier Movies…

Joker is not a happy movie. Or a particularly good one.

So what’s the story?

The short version is that Joker is director Todd Phillips’ take on the origin of the arch-Batman villain. In his telling, the future Clown Prince of Crime is a failed comedian and part-time party clown named Arthur Fleck. Two things are established early: Arthur is mentally ill and many scenes in the film are not “real” - but his delusions.

It is pretty clear that Phillips wanted to do a serious film: his main claim to fame has been as the man behind The Hangover franchise. Rather than coming off as weighty and thoughtful though the most generous description I can give Joker is that it is mental illness porn. The movie is grim and seems to delight in Arthur’s anguish, while failing to instill any sense of sympathy for the character. And all the tropes are on display: a burnt-out but essentially good social worker, a “system” that cuts funding for mental illness counseling and medication, “bad” rich guys and sympathetic “poor ones.” And many scenes are depressingly derivative, either of movies like Taxi Driver or real life events like the 1984 Bernhard Goetz subway shooting.

Is there anything good in the film?

Sure. While the cinematography is sub-par (too many scenes that are both cluttered and poorly lit) the acting is solid. Joaquin Phoenix delivers the best portrayal of a one-dimensional character I have seen this year. He does a solid journeyman-level job.

The other leads include Robert Di Niro, who in a handful of very short scenes makes talk show host Murray Franklin a more interesting, complex, and sympathetic character than Fleck; Zazie Beetz (Atlanta) is delightful, as always, as Arthur’s “girlfriend,” Frances Conroy (Castle Rock) is competently annoying as his mother, and Brett Cullen (the wonderful True Detective) is good as an unlikable Thomas Wayne - father of the future Dark Knight Detective.

That’s a good lead in to talk about the 800 pound bat in the room.

While Joker is obviously set in a comic book universe of some sort, with the title character, the Waynes, and even Alfred showing up, the comic aspect is downplayed throughout the film. While one could explain that as a decision to focus on the “story,” let’s be honest here: Joker’s only real hook is that it involves, however tangentially, the guy with the bat on his chest. Without that to drag the corpse of this film around, Joker would be no more than a dreary, competently acted film about a person suffering from untreated mental illness and the unpleasant people around him. Come to think of it, that’s pretty much what it is even with The Shadow of the Bat in the background.

Joker is available via Amazon Prime. If you are a fan of Phoenix you will probably still want to check it out. He is good.

If not, the Heath Ledger portrayal of the character in The Dark Knight remains the definitive take on the Clown Prince. Want to go Full Geek? If so, you can check out the 1928 The Man Who Laughs. The film and lead character were the original inspiration for the Batman villain when he first appeared way back in Batman #1 (April, 1940).

Two out of Five Batarangs in Waiting

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Have a different take? Best bat-related feature since Adam West wrestled Miss Piggy on the Muppets? Drop us a line and let us know.



while failing to instill any sense of sympathy for the character.
I felt sympathy for him.

a burnt-out but essentially good social worker
Is she good? She seemed pretty damn neutral to bad to me. She didn't listen to Arthur or ever seem to actually care about his problems.

sympathetic “poor ones.”
Which ones? Maybe Beetz and her daughter, but considering what we learn about her in relation to Arthur, that's questionable at best. You already said you didn't find Arthur sympathetic and his mom certainly isn't. So who then?


While the cinematography is sub-par (too many scenes that are both cluttered and poorly lit) the acting is solid.
I thought it was excellent. It was really effective in making everything seem grimy yet beautiful. It was one of the things that really stood out to me in the film.


Joaquin Phoenix delivers the best portrayal of a one-dimensional character I have seen this year. He does a solid journeyman-level job.
I agree about Phoenix delivering a fine performance. Disagree about the dimensions though and just about everything else you wrote.

He was a man struggling with mental demons while only wanting to bring joy to the world because he thought that was his purpose. But the pursuit of that purpose only brought him pain. But when he flipped that and found purpose in inflicting pain and enacting vengeance, he also found some happiness for himself. I see plenty of dimension there.