Joker depicts the origin story of one of the biggest super villains of modern mythology. Played by the magnificent Joaquin Phoenix, Arthur Fleck is an ex-psychiatric patient that aspires to be a stand up comedian. Living with his sick mother Penny (Frances Penny) and working as a “clown-for-hire,” Arthur struggles to make his dreams come true due to his mental conditions and they way people treat him as such, the latter due to the difficult times Gotham City faces in the early 1980s. At the same time, Arthur daydreams of his next door neighbor Sophie (Zazie Beetz), and being a guest on the “Live! with Murray Franklin” show. And while Arthur tries to commit to his comedy dream,“it only takes one bad day to drive the sanest man alive to lunacy”.
Right out of the gate, Phoenix brings one of the greatest adaptations of the Batman villain ever to be seen on the big screen. Every scene, every shot, and every second of the film that passes is filled with meticulous and precise acting from his part; Phoenix wears the Joker persona and drives the film. Without spoilers, One of my favorite things he does in his performance is the way he moves when he’s dancing. The beautifully haunting recitation of a ballet dance that he brings when he starts his path on becoming the Joker will be an acting performance that’ll be studied for years. That, along with the almost death stare from Arthur Fleck’s green eyes and another iconic Joker laughter that’s crucial for the plot, makes for an Oscar-worthy performance that’ll be completely hard to miss.
The most melancholic thought from the film is that Phoenix is not trying to compete with Heath Ledger, Jared Leto or even Jack Nicolson’s interpretations of the character. Instead, He makes his greatest efforts to deliver an iconic performance worthy of the “Joker” name. While Ledger’s character titled more for the anarchist role of the Joker antagonist in The Dark Knight, Phoenix carefully explores Arthur Flecks’s schizophrenic behavior in an effort to transform him from crazy “down-on-his-luck” person to the Clown Prince of Crime that he’s infamously known in Gotham City.
It’s impressive how Todd Phillip, the director of The Hangover films, went from making raunchy comedies to a chilling character study of the iconic DC comic book villain. His direction is top notch, bringing a disturbing and chilling story that carries major inspirations from films like Taxi Driver, but has more to offer on the plate with a character like the Joker in a smaller scale. It’s also filled with some incredible cinematography that can easily compete with other films in those categories. Cinematographer Lawrence Cher and composer Hildur Guðnadóttir’ went all out to bring some of the most impressive and claustrophobic shots and movie scores that truly compliments Phoenix’s eerie acting. The gritty, and even almost “disgusting”, look of Gotham City makes his surroundings breathe the stressful and violent times the people are living, while the score’s Leif Motif doubles down on Fleck’s road to darkness.
Although Phoenix completely carries the movie from start to finish, major props has to be given to Robert De Niro for his role as Murray Franklin. The obvious parallel from Jerry Lewis’ portrayal of Jerry Langford from 1983’s The King of Comedy doesn’t detract De Niro from selling the audience (and himself) the charismatic and positive attitude from his character. At this point in his career, De Niro could’ve easily shoehorned his performance and call it a day, but he doesn’t.
Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for both Zazie Beats and even Brett Cullen, who plays Thomas Wayne. There’s nothing wrong with their performance, both are great actor and actress on their own; they simply didn’t have a lot to do in this film. Of course, the movie is all about the Joker, and it makes obvious sense that Phoenix would steal the show, but there’s tons of things that could’ve been done with both characters to expand their roles to the creation of the villainous clown.
While most people might be distracted with the Taxi Driver inspiration from this film, Todd Phillips brings one of the most pragmatical origin stories of the Joker character that comic book fans will truly appreciate. Phoenix completely knocks it out of the park with his jaw-dropping performance and the cinematography and score being Oscar-worthy of their own. Even with the lack of any Batman or DC lore, Joker is a remarkable film that will carry itself throughout the years not just as a comic book movie, but as a cinematic masterpiece.