Maybe if it had a different title such as “Smile” or “The Tears of a Clown” and the main character that wasn’t tied in, however clumsily, with the DC Universe then director Todd Phillips and actor Joaquin Phoenix might have made something special with their tale of a troubled soul’s descent into madness. Because Joker is at heart still a “comic book” movie, though, the chance to do something great gets lost as deep thoughts about the human condition gets truncated to make room for a checklist of the character’s canon requirements.
Joker tells the story of Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) a bottom rung clown for hire who spends his days dressed in greasepaint and floppy shoes doing everything from spinning a Going Out of Business sign in front of a failing storefront to miming silly songs at a children’s hospital ward. They’re menial tasks that most people would be too embarrassed to do, but to Fleck, they are all stepping stones leading him to his dream of being a professional standup comedian.
Fleck’s problems go deeper than a simple need to be funny or famous; it’s clear from the outset that his mental and emotional problems run deep. There are some outward signs, like his inability to stop laughing when his fears and emotions get the better of him, a malady based on an actual medical condition called pseudobulbar affect though it is never fully explained in the film. There is also his frequent retreats into an imaginary world were his personal success — in entertainment, in his relationships with others and in this life — has already happened and both he and his life are “normal”.
Watching Fleck struggle to find a balance between his real and imaginary worlds is the most successful part of the movie. Philips, working closely with cinematographer Lawrence Sher (Godzilla: King of the Monsters) editor Jeff Groth (War Dogs), creates a cinematic world that both seduces and scares us. They are able to bring incredible tension to such simple scenes, two characters in a shuddering, shabby elevator for example, that the audience almost screams for relief before anything happens.
Phoenix, for his part, submerges himself into the part with a frightening ferocity, projecting an intensity that fills the screen, particularly in the way he uses his body and face to draw us into his anxiety. At times he depends too heavily on his physicality: Fleck dances so much in the movie that you can’t help but wonder if he’d be better off trying for a career as a chorus boy rather than a stand up comic. And the character smokes so many cigarettes in the movie you can almost taste the ash in your mouth. Such distractions aside, though, you have to admit that Phoenix is definitely on to something as you watch Fleck fall down his own personal rabbit hole.
And then, as if there is a DC bean counter sitting just off-camera with a chart to remind Phillips and Phoenix who is paying the bills, the “Joker” from the Batman comics gets forced into the film and derails practically all their good work. First Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) shows up as a mayoral candidate running on a crusade to clean up Gotham and make life better for those in need. Then the story swerves over to a silly subplot about how Fleck may be the illegitimate offspring of a tryst between Wayne and a former housekeeper. From that point on, the DC connection grows into a parallel story that saps the energy out of the original aspects of the film and becomes a huge distraction. The name “Joker” maybe on the title and the lead character may assume it as a mantle to his madness towards the end of the movie, but the connection ultimately fails to generate any electricity.
Joker could have been a much better story if they had thrown out all that Batman stuff and instead given us a totally original character. He can still be a killer clown, especially since his makeup looks more John Wayne Gacy than Cesar Romero, but they could have used the space freed up to flesh him out a bit. He can still suffer from pseudobulbar affect — in fact, it’s a stroke of genius to give such a condition to a clown — but since its primary cause is a traumatic brain injury, why not show us how he got it. (And how about a little explanation about why Fleck dances so much while we’re at it?)
Space freed up by the de-comicization of Joker could also be used to more fully develop the relationship Fleck develops (or thinks he develops) with Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), the late-night talk show host who finally gives him his big break in show business. As it is, it feels false, like a plot device that needs to happen than an organic part of Fleck’s development. Or maybe that would make parts of Joker feel like even more of a weak imitation of the 1982 De Niro movie, The King of Comedy, directed by Martin Scorsese, where a troubled would-be comedian kidnaps a talk show host (Jerry Lewis) as part of his deranged need for fame.
The point is that while it may have its roots in the DC Universe, the seeds of this Joker could have been much more effective, and feel less exploitative if it had moved past those roots and found fresh, more fertile soil to grow in.
- John Black, Joker