Joker Review by Tim Nasson

September 28, 2019

The Joker debuted in DC Comics’s first issue of Batman in 1940, and since then in TV and movies he continually sparks iconic performances. Cesar Romero was the first human to portray him in the Batman TV show. Jack Nicholson was the first to grace the big screen as the Joker, and was robbed of an Oscar nomination for that role. Heath Ledger won a posthumous Oscar for playing the Joker.  And then there was Jared Leto as the Joker in Suicide Squad. While Leto is an Oscar winning actor, his role as the Joker was, well, a joke.

Now we have Joaquin Phoenix (nominated for 3 acting Oscars) in the first movie to revolve completely around the Joker character, and an origin story. And while it will make money, it is hardly the best Gotham inspired movie. It is not even in the Top 5.

Todd Phillips’ Joker opens with a radio announcer bemoaning the 18th day of the garbage men on strike, and Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck, a clown for hire, putting on his clown make-up in Gene Simmons of KISS style. Fleck is getting ready to go out into 1981’s Gotham to hold a going-out-of-business sign on the street for one of the clown agency’s clients. Once on the job, along comes a band of delinquents who not only make fun of Fleck, but steal his sign. Fleck unwisely decides to chase them into an alley where he gets beaten to a pulp.

Before the title of the movie comes up on the screen, Fleck starts laughing spontaneously, (or is he crying out for help?), while seated in a dingy office being evaluated by a woman from the Department of Mental Health, and is asked what he wants to do in life. His reply is “I am thinking of pursuing a career in stand up comedy,” but adds “death makes more sense than life.” After being told that “you’re on seven medications. Surely, you must be feeling something,” he replies “I just don’t want to feel bad anymore.”

From the very beginning we realize that Fleck is mentally ill, but is not getting the help he needs. In due course, we find out that his mental illness is hereditary.  His mother (Frances Conroy) is insane, claiming, among other things, that Thomas Wayne, her previous employer and Batman’s father, is Arthur’s father. It is also revealed that Fleck was physically abused as a child.

A side story has Arthur being obsessed with Murray Franklin (Robert DeNiro), Gotham’s answer to Johnny Carson.  Fleck is prone to delusions, some of them being that he is befriended by Franklin while in the audience of one of the tapings. Another of his delusions is that his next door neighbor is in love with him.

Joker is a very dark film. Of course while the Tim Burton Batman films, as well as Christopher Nolan’s, were not the epitome of a feel good Disney film, this movie takes it to a new level. Phillips is best known for The Hangover movies and Road Trip. Joker is nothing like any of those films. While some may compare it to The King of Comedy, which was a brilliant black comedy, dealing with a mentally unstable character, or Taxi Driver, both, incidentally, headlined by Robert DeNiro, Joker is not on either of those films’ level for quality. Turner Classic Movies, in 50 years, won’t be playing Joker,.

Fleck’s first criminal act is murdering three Wall Street type young men who make fun of him and his clown costume while riding on a subway. Without giving away the whole story, the police are on the lookout for a killer clown. However, there is an uprising, a revolt, anarchy in Gotham after the murders, and everyone who rallies behind whomever the clown killer is, it seems, is wearing a clown mask.

The mental health clinic that Fleck reports to every week, the same clinic where he gets his  prescriptions to help with his mental illness, is abruptly shut down. What is he to do? Suffice it to say, Fleck goes completely off the deep end.

Everyone who has ever slighted him is in jeopardy.

Joker isn’t a bad movie. But it is not even remotely close to being the masterpiece that The Dark Knight is. Is Phoenix a great actor? Without a doubt. Is he the best Joker that has ever graced the big screen? Not even close.

The only the Joker really does in the movie is laugh. When a woman on the bus is incensed that he can’t stop laughing after she tells him to stop talking to her  young daughter, he gives her a laminated card that says something to the effect of “I have a medical condition that makes me laugh for no reason. Please hand this card back to me.” Phoenix also lost about 50lbs for the role. That’s been done many times before, and is not something awards are won for doing.

Will he earn a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his role as Joker? Hmmm. Chances are 50/50, I’d say. But don’t bet your money on him winning an Oscar for this movie. Will there be a sequel? Probably.

Frank Sinatra sings the very fitting Send In The Clowns over the end credits of the film, a film that has no post credits scene.

Grade: B-

Joker Review by Tim Nasson

Joker Trailer

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