Released: 3rd October
Seen: 3rd October
There’s an old Looney Tunes episode called Show Biz Bugs where Daffy and Bugs are going head to head on a stage doing various acts and Daffy finally has enough and pulls out “The act I’ve been saving for a special occasion”. The act consists of Daffy wearing a devils outfit and walking on stage and drinking a bottle of nitro-glycerine, then a goodly amount of gunpowder and some uranium-238. He then shakes it all up inside him, throws a lit match down his throat and explodes. The crowd goes wild and Bugs yells “Daffy, that’s terrific. They want more!” and Daffy’s ghost says “I know, but I can only do it once”. That’s kind of how I feel about this movie, it’s a fantastic trick to pull off but they can only do it once.
Joker tells the story of Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a perpetually put-upon lower class man with a mental illness that causes him to laugh uncontrollably at random moments. This illness and his chosen profession of Clown often makes him the target for bullying, assault and general degradation from the people of Gotham. He’s a sad lonely man with no one else to turn to, so naturally that makes him slowly evolve into a homicidal maniac. After losing his job and becoming a joke on The Murray Franklin Show, which happens when Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro) shows a tape of Arthur’s failed stand up, Arthur slowly gives into the madness that has been building inside him to turn him into the Clown Prince of Crime.
As a general rule I’ve never been a fan of villain origin stories. I do not now, nor will I ever give a single damn about how the bad guy became the bad guy because it’s almost always underwhelming. Look to any horror movie franchise that tried to explain why the villain is so powerful and evil, it really never works and takes away a considerable amount of mystique from the character. This is why Heath Ledger’s Dark Knight version of the Joker was so interesting. He would constantly ask people “Do you want to know how I got these scars” but he never gave a straight answer. There was no reason given to explain why he behaved the way he did, he was just this amalgamation of strangeness that no one could really understand and he was terrifying. This movie has the hard time of not only explaining how Joker became the disturbing villain we’ve been fascinated by for years, but doing so in a way that allows him to still remain intimidating once we know what made him like this. For the most part, they manage to pull that off… by basically making him Robert Pupkin from The King of Comedy with different makeup. There’s a touch of Taxi Driver in here too, but 95% of it is King of Comedy.
This movie follows King of Comedy so much that it should just be declared an official remake. From the story to the visual style to the repeated delusions suffered by the main character, it’s the same film. It’s so clearly the same film that I’m kind of stunned they didn’t make De Niro just play Robert Pupkin. Here’s the thing though… I have no problem with them ripping off The King of Comedy. It’s honestly a fascinating little trick to try and pull by taking a classic 80s thriller and recreating it through a Superhero lens. Now, contrary to what the director said, this is not “sneaking a real movie into the studio system under the guise of a comic book film” because that’s a very dumb thing to say. No, this is simply a remake with a bankable coat of paint in the form of a known piece of intellectual property… catch is that it really works here because anyone with even a passing knowledge of Joker and The King of Comedy can see how those two things basically overlap.
The entire film works as well as it does almost entirely because of the disturbingly perfect performance by Joaquin Phoenix. Joaquin has never given less than 100% but here he’s delivering the performance of a lifetime. Every move he makes is so clearly planned and yet feels so natural, it’s disturbing how real he’s made this character. Arthur Fleck could turn up anywhere and blend into our reality, he’s not some maniacal super villain who just gets off on pain. He’s a damaged man who has had the world take a gigantic dump on him and he finally started smearing the crap everywhere and dancing around in it out of sheer frustration. I’m not even a little shocked that people have compared this character to an incel (a term you are happier not understanding, trust me) but I’m thankful that the film never really tries to make you sympathise with him, you’re watching someone crumble and do things so heinous that it’s hard to even begin to have empathy with this lunatic. Joaquin’s probably getting an Oscar nomination for this and I won’t be shocked at all when that happens because it’s the kind of performance that is basically designed to grab the Oscar voters’ attention and pull them in. Joaquin goes from crying to laughing to terrifying within 7 seconds in this movie, he’s fantastic and worthy of the price of admission.
Now, the big controversy surrounding this film is the idea that it might inspire violence and here’s the thing… I doubt it’s going to, they make it pretty clear that there’s nothing about the violence that Joker does that should be praised and you’d hope that would be enough. It’s certainly violent and intense in parts (again, it’s ripping off a Scorsese film, this is expected) but it never feels like it’s trying to inspire the viewer to think this is acceptable. However, some parts of the internet might think some of what Joker’s talking about is acceptable so while I don’t agree with those concerns, I get how people have them. What I don’t get is that this film kind of explicitly makes a point about comedy that would go against something the director said. See, I’m not exactly a fan of the director lately because he keeps putting his foot in his mouth by saying dumb things like “Go try to be funny nowadays with this woke culture”, his explanation about why he no longer makes comedies anymore. This goes against the movie that explicitly points out that part of what drove Arthur to the brink of madness is the same kind of cruel joke that ‘Woke Culture’ (a phrase that used to be known as ‘consequences for being an asshole’) would scream about. They show Arthur being made fun of in a pretty cruel manner, it’s just a joke but it’s a joke that punches down at someone with an obvious mental illness and it’s pointedly called out as not being OK to do that because… well, it might not make someone put on Joker makeup and shoot people in the head, but it’s going to cause them harm. Just find it interesting that this film is getting controversy for things it doesn’t do, but what it actually says seems to be being ignored by everyone, including its director.
Joker is a Scorsese rip-off that decided to go to ComicCon for a change of pace but it absolutely worked. A great performance and the good fortune of a great story to retell makes it a must see. I don’t think they could do this again, certainly not with any of the other Batman villains… although if someone were to try it, redo Wolf of Wall Street but replace him with Harvey Two-Face. Even get Leo to play the main role, why not. It’s a great film that’s worth going to go see, we’ll probably talk about it again at Oscar time but… god damn, I’m so tired of the discussion around this film already and I look forward to going a few months without hearing anything else about it. I’m tired.