Review: Joker (2019) – Great performance by Phoenix & nothing more

joker movie still joaquin phoenix
joker movie still joaquin phoenix

Joker – Movie Review

Review video

Written review

Joker was a movie that nobody asked for until Joaquin Phoenix was cast and receiving positive early reviews from the 76th Venice International Film Festival, winning the Golden Lion prize as well. But is the film really that good or is it, perhaps, overhyped?

Joker is directed by Todd Phillips who did The Hangover trilogy (2009 – 2013), War Dogs (2016) and a few college and school comedies. He co-written the film with Scott Silver who wrote a few really good dramas such as 8 Mile (2002) and The Fighter (2010).

Joker is a standalone DC film outside of the DCEU and is supposed to be the first of the DC Black movie series. The film serves as an origin story of the popular titular Batman supervillain. The film doesn’t really follow his origin story from the comic book Batman: The Killing Joke (1988) but it was used by Phillips and Silver as the basis for the premise.

You know this meme? Creating Joker in 1989, throw him into chemical waste. Creating Joker in 2019, throw him into society? Well, it could’ve been great if that meme was accurate about this film’s version of the Joker’s origin story, exploring how a society could turn an ordinary man into this psychopathic criminal mastermind. Unfortunately, it’s not the society alone that created this Joker.

In this film, Arthur Fleck, who eventually becomes the Joker, is not really ordinary. He’s already mentally unstable at the beginning. Sure, he is a poor man who’s struggling to make ends meet, gets treated like shit almost every where he goes and he’s an unfunny guy aspiring to be a standup comedian. Similar enough to The Killing Joke‘s origin story.

But on top of that, he already has a mental condition from the very start. Even his crazy laugh is a neurological disorder and it’s not because he actually wants to laugh. I guess you could already tell that I didn’t really like this version of the origin story. It just feels like that film made it easier for itself to depict how Arthur gets provoked into madness… by having him being already mad to begin with.

However, I take nothing away from Joaquin Phoenix’s committed performance as Arthur. It absolutely is an Oscar-worthy performance without a doubt. The film’s arthouse approach allows him to fully showcase his incredible acting range. He even lost more than 20kg for this role. He more than convincingly portrays Arthur as this constantly sad, compellingly creepy and mentally unstable man that could just explode at any time. If you like hearing his Joker laughs, you’d hear one too many times in this film.

But the problem is that the writing fails to engage me to really feel bad for him or even find him likable. Sure, he’s skinny, depressed and living in a small apartment with his mother but he never seems hungry for food or in desperate need of money. It seems that he wants psychological help and medicines more than any of that.

Unlike in The Killing Joke, it’s not a “one bad day” that drove the ordinary man to madness. Here, it’s more like a man with mental issues is forcefully written into becoming a killer clown. Like having a clown colleague giving Arthur a gun without any real motive and then throwing him under the bus for no reason. Or conveniently having him accidentally do something that gets him in trouble.

Or oddly portraying Batman’s father, Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), as a rich jerk who’s campaigning to be elected as mayor of Gotham. That’s so unnecessary but I guess they’re trying to make the film relevant to the United State’s current issues and politics? That alone opens up a can of worms. Like, how does that justify Bruce Wayne becoming the Batman if his dad was such an asshole?

The film is probably meant to be a character study but I ended up studying the questionable decisions made by Phillips and Silver instead. The film is thorough depressing without any moment of real joy, humour or even a single likable character.

The most disappointing thing is that I don’t get to see the Joker go batshit crazy. All he does is dance around, laugh, run away and kill like an average murderer. The film is R-rated but the violence isn’t really shocking. The film never shifts its dull tone or slow pacing.

I was hoping it to be enjoyable in the final act after all that buildup when Arthur finally becomes the funny, brilliant, mad criminal. I thought maybe we get to see him masterminding a heist or something chaotic to make him really menacing. But none of that really happens in this film. I did not feel like I saw a complete transformation from Arthur to Joker. Everything that happens in the final act is just very underwhelming and is not really impactful.

I’m also not sure why the film needs to spell out and spoonfeed the point of the story towards the end as though it’s not already blatantly obvious. It’s like the film doesn’t have confidence in it’s own arthouse approach of conveying the message that’s already predictable from the start.

The film is not your typical DC superhero-related movie. It’s definitely much heavier with zero joy and ironically, almost humourless. That could be a good thing but even if I see the film as an arthouse, character-study film with deep messages, it’s not strong enough and doesn’t offer the impact it needs.

The more I analyse the film, the less I like it. I tried to find excuses for the film. I thought maybe there’s something wrong with me for not liking the film. But that is the truth. I just didn’t like it as much as I thought I would.

The only things I enjoyed were Phoenix’s acting and the cinematography. That’s it. Even Robert De Niro doesn’t do much in the film. Without Phoenix’s great performance and the Batman brand, the film would’ve just been a boring movie about a mad man gradually embracing his madness with the help of the society that’s lacking of empathy.

Probably going to get a lot of hate for this but honestly, I think all that hype the film got was probably all for Joaquin Phoenix.

*Rating, post-credit scene and Malaysian censorship info are given in the review video above. Please watch it, give it a thumbs up and subscribe the channel if you haven’t already. Thanks for your kind support!

joker 2019 movie poster keyart malaysia

Based on: Characters from DC Comics’ “Batman”

Genre: Psychological thriller
Running Time: 122 minutes
Director: Todd Phillips
Screenwriters: Todd Phillips, Scott Silver
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Bill Camp, Frances Conroy

Malaysia Release Date: 3 October 2019
Rated: 18
Local Distributor: Warner Bros. Pictures Malaysia
Production: DC Films, Village Roadshow Pictures, Bron Creative, Joint Effort

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