Joker (2019) Review

The part of this movie where Joaquin Phoenix is in the back of a comedy club jotting down nonsense and laughing at inappropriate times is probably the most accurate depiction of my blog writing process I’ve seen. 

 

Premise

 

Despite making up less than .01% of Gotham’s population, Arthur Fleck commits 50% of the city’s high-profile murders. (He’s in whiteface though, so it’s not terrorism).  

 

Plot

 

Arthur Fleck, makeup tutorial YouTuber and streetwear icon, goes for a stroll around Gotham in his freshest fit. A group of kids—jealous of his drip—hit him in the face with a big sign, causing him to fall down and scuff his size 18 Yeezys. Arthur suffers from a rare neurological condition where he thinks of New Yorker cartoons, prompting him to giggle uncontrollably. He goes home to his mother, Penny, who’s sad about Thomas Wayne leaving her on read for 30 years. Penny tells Arthur to eat more, but he says he’s doing keto, and his prominently exposed ribcage is a sign that it’s working. 

 

Arthur receives a Make-a-Wish request from one of his fans at a children’s hospital. His friend Randall, a fervent anti-vaxxer, gives him a gun to protect himself from “big pharma.” Later, while riding the train, three guerilla marketers from Burger King begin throwing fries at an innocent woman. Arthur, enraged and fully in ketosis, shoots all three of them, then locks himself in a bathroom to dance. After exercising his anti-bourgér praxis, Arthur begins seeing his neighbor Sophie from down the hall. At a comedy club, he performs an avant-garde stand-up routine consisting of two minutes of uninterrupted laughter, interspersed with vaguely biographical non-sequiturs. The set is so successful, Arthur lands a spot on the Robert De Niro show, hosted by Robert De Niro. 

 

Arthur learns from Penny that he’s Thomas Wayne’s son. He goes to the Wayne residence, where he does magic tricks for Batman and chokes out Alfred. Later, Arthur sneaks into a Wayne fundraiser and confronts him in the bathroom. Wayne tells him he’s not his son, but in fact adopted, then punches Arthur in the face for ‘looking at him funny.’ Arthur goes to the mental hospital his mother was confined to and learns of her various mental illnesses, as well as the abuse he suffered as a young child from one of her boyfriends. Arthur visits Penny in her hospital room and strangles her.** 

 

Arthur learns that his relationship with Sophie was entirely imagined, and puts himself in the fridge to cool off. On the day he’s scheduled to go on the Robert De Niro show, he’s visited by Randall, who tells Arthur he has measles. Scared he’ll get infected and be unable to perform, Arthur stabs him with scissors. On the Robert De Niro show, Arthur reveals to the audience that he killed the men on the subway, inadvertently inspiring mass protests against Gotham’s elite, despite his explicit lack of political affiliation. Arthur asks an indignant Robert De Niro if he’s ‘triggered,’ then shoots him in the head. Arthur gets arrested, but protesters crash into the police car and free him. At the end of the movie, Arthur is shown in a mental hospital workshopping his tight 5. 

 

**My friend Addison did point out him smothering her with a pillow doesn’t make sense since she has breathing tubes in, which is a fair point.

 

Analysis 

 

I used to think Joker (2019) was a tragedy, but now I realize it’s an unintentionally woke political drama about neglect and disillusionment. Oh, and clowns. Lots and lots of clowns.

 

Webster’s Dictionary defines “society” as: “an enduring and cooperating social group whose members have developed organized patterns of relationships through interaction with one another.” That’s not really relevant to anything, but it is the only source I’m gonna use in this review. 

Important to note about Joker (2019) is that, despite having one character, he doesn’t really do very much. Most of the plot is driven by what’s happening in the background: the social tensions of Gotham and the eventual protests. Arthur’s functionally just some guy who happens to stumble into important events, like.. [Mr. Peanut Butter from Bojack Horseman] (my editor added this reference, I don’t really get it). So what’s up? 

 

You know how, in the movie Taxi Driver, Travis won’t shut up about how the streets of New York are “dirty” and someone needs to “wash them clean?” Gotham is… well, that. Even the Charles Palantine character (Thomas Wayne) agrees. Something’s wrong, someone needs to fix it, there are 25 garbage bags in this alley and not ONE recycling bin, god damn it. Or at the very least, that’s how things are perceived. Going off sentiment, I think people may find parallels between the revolutionaries of Joker and other modern-day protests (e.g. Hong Kong). 

 

But there is one major difference between the “system” of Joker movie and the classical oppressive regimes found scattered throughout literature, film, and real life: competence. What makes Joker interesting isn’t really the revolution. People have been talking revolutions since… well the show Revolution aired in 2014, so we’ll say then. What makes it interesting is why people are… doing that. Despite being a Gamer, at no point is Arthur actively oppressed. He’s no Winston Smith, having to hide every subversive thought from the prying eyes of Big Brother (he’s barely even a Boxer). No one’s trying to lock him up (in fact, he wants himself institutionalized more than anyone actively in power). Instead, he’s the victim of cruel indifference: a retro-capitalist dystopia in which structures of power give way to struggles for survival. State support withers; even the police, which may have been helpful in preventing a few of Arthur’s misfortunes, seem to only pop up when people with connections are endangered. To top it off, we’re never really shown an actual figure of authority. The closest thing is Thomas Wayne, who’s basically some rich guy with air time. 

 

That’s also why the script puts so much emphasis on “the system” rather than a particular institution. No one entity is causing these problems; they just naturally arise as a consequence of the structure they’re in. No one with the means to help out does, and those who wish to help (if any such person exists) can’t. Arthur’s personal story is a microcosm of Gotham’s societal ills: placed in foster care as a child, only to be turned over to his mother’s abusive boyfriend, then returned despite her institutionalization into a mental hospital. Later committed himself for  unspecified reasons, then released with a few prescriptions and an apathetic case worker, only to have those two things taken away. Arthur is the embodiment of systemic negligence. 

 

Where the ideologies of his personal character, and this movie at large diverge is in their attribution. Arthur’s monologue seems to pin the problems of Gotham on the people: no one’s nice to each other, no one has empathy, and the broad moral failings of the populace results in cases like his own. From his perspective, this makes perfect sense. He’s been wronged by individuals: his mother, his boss, his co-workers, his case worker, his not-Father, the cops, his fake girlfriend, those dumb kids at the hospital. Of course, we’re able to see the broader context of the systemic failures operating as the true origins of his problems.

 

On the flip side, Arthur becomes a revolutionary icon for largely personal reasons. He gets validation for his antics, something he’s never received otherwise. People begin to “see” him after he stops clowning and starts clowning. He’s affirmed his own existence through the eyes of others or whatever something something Hegel something. I don’t think this movie wants you to identify with Arthur so much as it wants you to identify the situation influencing and responding to his actions. 

 

There are a few other themes here and there, but they don’t really get fleshed out. Probably the most notable comes out during Arthur’s talk show monologue. He does this whole bit about the subjectivity of comedy, even getting mad at Robert De Niro (and the audience, by extension) for being the arbiters of comedic validity. To be clear, this is an appropriate theme for the Joker as a character, it just doesn’t really make sense in this iteration. If you have a wacky existential Joker finding humor in the absurdity of life, then whatever, but Arthur isn’t really that at all. At best, he’s kind of an edgy nihilist who wants to “tear down the system,” so the former point only makes sense if the movie’s implying he hates Gotham’s elite for not laughing at his jokes. Wait a second… 

 

Also, the fact that the Wayne Enterprises employees were referred to as “Wall Street Guys,” while Sophie clearly says that they live in “Gotham City” makes me think Todd Phillips forgot he was directing a Batman movie and not The Hangover Part IV: It’s Not (hang)Over Yet.

 

Reference

 

Speaking of Taxi Driver, did you guys know that um some of the parts where Joaquin Phoenix is doing stuff in the Joker movie it’s kinda like when Robert De Niro did stuff in the Taxi Driver movie? Like when he take gun and point it at tv and go BLAM it’s like brooooo that was what happened in the other one. Ok that’s all thank you.

 

Character

 

Just one. Let’s… talk about him?

 

Arthur Fleck, or the Joker, from Joker (2019)

 

I know saying “X should win an Oscar for their performance in Y” should probably be banned as a sentence in any review, especially in the context of superhero movies. That being said, Joaquin Phoenix should win an Oscar for his performance in Joker (2019) (or at least get nominated). That creepy laugh that he does is so wonderfully off-putting. I honestly think the best scenes in the movie are him laughing while looking absolutely miserable— doing two different things with your face is hard, yo.

 

Joaquin got major acting props for the physicality of his performance, but again, I don’t think that was really what made it “good.” Like theoretically anyone can get really skinny and aggressively walk down stairs, but I think the more subtle quirks in his personality really brought the character to life. I don’t think there are that many actors who could’ve pulled off the same schtick without it being goofy or awkward, but Joaquin really carries the movie. Good job JP. Good job.

 

Dialogue

 

Probably this movie’s weakest point is the stuff that people say to each other. It’s very… blunt? Like there aren’t good quotables that aren’t just memes. All the highlights rely super heavily on acting; I think you could’ve had Joaquin Phoenix in clown makeup say anything and it would’ve had the same intensity. It just seems like every interaction didn’t get fleshed out from the storyboard. It’s not even more realistic this way, it’s just average. I get that Arthur is supposed to speak in a child-like manner, and that part was fine. But everyone else was just not great. It didn’t help that basically every interaction was supposed to further the point that everything is terrible and everyone sucks. Half of Arthur’s conversations condense down to “fuck you, you fucking weirdo, get the fuck out of my face.” The characters in this movie talk like NPC’s: they say a few lines which are either super blatant exposition or complete filler.

 

I actually think the best dialogue in the movie was Arthur’s various comedy routines. I understand they were supposed to be uncomfortable, but I just found them really really funny. It might just be dumb, irony-laden zoomer brain which interprets everything as satire, but that car crash joke made me burst out laughing both times I saw this movie. 

 

Sound

 

People kept gassing up the score for this movie, which I did not get. Other than the script, I think the OST was probably the worst part of Joker. It’s so hollow. Whether that’s appropriate for the film is a different discussion, but the transition from the sampling to the original score was always jarring, and not in a good way. It was mostly just low droning noises, like Hans Zimmer took too many benadryl. I do want to give a shoutout to whomever selected the music for the movie, particularly the opening track, Temptation Rag, by French jazz pianist Claude Bolling. That song fucking slaps, and it sets the tone really well for the rest of the movie. (Unlike the rest of the score, which just sets the tones).

 

Visuals

 

Ok, very briefly: after seeing this movie twice, I’ve decided I don’t care about the cinematography. It’s fine, Lawrence Sher did a good job, I just don’t really want to think about Joker anymore. That said, I do want to say that the makeup department (which had 31 people in it!) and the costume department did a fantastic job. Joaquin Phoenix’s look in this movie is iconic, and the way they subtly fucked with his clown outfit (clownfit?) to make him look all creepy was great. Ok that’s all.

 

Conclusion

 

I know everyone expected this movie to be a massive incel circlejerk, but it wasn’t, really. I think it actually ended up being over-hated by salty film nerds on the internet (I’m only 2 of those things, but you have to guess which ones). People seem kind of angry at Joker’s success, both critically and commercially. I guess it’s because there are “better” movies out there? Like, yes, Jeremy, I’m sure your French art house film’s portrayal of the banal despondency in man’s existence was more profound, I’m still not going to have sex with you. This movie is just about as good as it needed to be, and Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker is probably the second best take on the character, after the insurmountable tour de force that was Jared Leto’s Suicide Squad performance. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go write “damaged” on my forehead and lay down in my knife circle.

 

Good for: General audiences, apparently

 

Bad for: Robert De Niro’s late night talk show career

 

6.6/8 

 

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