JOKER – Review by Sarah Knight Adamson

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Joker boasts an Oscar-worthy performance for Joaquin Phoenix, despite an implausible script.

Joaquin Phoenix, the exceptionally talented actor, three-time Oscar nominee (“The Master,” “Walk the Line,” “Gladiator”) stars in the dark, depressing origin role of 1940s comic book character the Joker, alongside Oscar winner Robert De Niro (“Raging Bull,” “The Godfather: Part II”). Director and co-writer Todd Phillips Oscar nominee (“Borat,”), also known for (“The Hangover” trilogy), is quoted as saying, “I was inspired by the character studies that I watched when I was younger. The look, the vibe, the tone of those films made sense for this story.” The films he’s referring to are “Serpico,” “Taxi Driver,” and “Network.” Fittingly, the setting is 1981 in the dilapidated, crime-ridden Gotham City a.k.a. New York City. “Joker,” the film, is similar to viewing the onset of a colossal gruesome train-wreck, as we view loner Arthur Fleck (Joker) navigate his way in a skewed society that not only kicks Arthur to the curb—he’s labeled as an outcast, and pigeon-holed as a weirdo. Disturbingly depressing, equally creepy, and at times a masterpiece, “Joker” will stay with you long after the credits roll.

Joker’s origin story, as viewed by writers Todd Phillips and Scott Silver (“The Fighter”), tells of a middle-aged, kind-hearted man who desires to connect with people and to especially please his frail, needy mother (Frances Conroy). By all appearances, she seems to care about her son; she even nicknamed him “Happy,” and tells him to bring joy and happiness into the world. Cue Arthur’s clown job, and the standup comic act. Although, unfortunately, Arthur has the deck stacked against him as his disorder of an uncontrollable bizarre laugh creates awkward situations that only trigger his demise. The initial doting mom storyline seems implausible as the minute we find out that Arthur, was in fact horrifically abused as a child by his mother’s boyfriend while she stood by, not even lifting a finger to stop the abuse creates mistrust. Mistrust in the screenplay and the film as a whole—however, Phoenix, gives a performance of a lifetime—despite an irregular script.

The painfully sad backstory transformation of a depressed, clinically ill Arthur Fleck, to that of a sociopath killer, a.k.a. Joker is extremely tough to view. He’s prescribed seven different medications for depression, and tells his caseworker he wants more meds so he can stop feeling so awful. He’s told that the government is cutting back funds, and that she can do nothing more to help him, and that she’ll not be seeing him in the future. Here, society turns it’s back again on Arthur, sending a statement about mental health care.

As the film progresses, we view Arthur’s mental deterioration as a fully formed psychosis. All while the script continues to pile on. He’s fired from his ‘rent a clown’ job for destroying his sign, when in fact, a street gang used the wooden sign as a weapon—smashing it downward breaking it on his skull, then kicking and pummeling him in an unsettling brutal back alley scene. Witnessing his continued failures, and beatings are exasperating, building to a crescendo of ‘shock and horror’ when we finally see a shirtless Phoenix—a skeletal figure, with black and blue bruises, the outline of his protruding ribs—a real kill-joy. Phoenix lost 52 pounds for the role, and from this scene forward, we are constantly reminded of his emaciated body, that parallels his depleting soul.

The last straw occurs when Arthur appears on his comedic idol Murry Franklin’s (Robert De Niro’s) comedy show as a guest; incidentally, the wide striped colorful curtains are reminiscent of late-night talk show host Johnny Carson’s stage curtains. Again, true to the tone of the script, Franklin initially played nice with Arthur only to turn his back on him by mocking him. We know the retaliation is coming; we’re just not sure the form. Yes, the television sequence is bloody and gory, although not surprising as we’ve previously been subjected to a myriad of bloody violent scenes up to this point.

As a Joaquin Phoenix fan since “Gladiator” (2000), I applaud his Joker performance which brought images of Charlize Theron’s serial killer Academy Award winning role in “Monster” (she gained 40 plus pounds for her role), and yes, I thought of De Niro in “Taxi Driver” as well. Though Joker’s gun killing spree is unnerving and uncomfortable, it’s especially so, given today’s mass shooting environment. We’ve already lived through a delusional masked clown persona shoot-to-kill incident—in 2012, Aurora, Colorado in a movie theater during the midnight opening of “The Dark Knight Rises” screening, of which 12 people died and 70 were injured including children. My daughter lived in Denver at the time, and her co-worker was in that theater that night. Needless to say, I was an emotional wreck listening to my daughter on the phone sobbing and I too bursting into tears, and just now reliving this moment, while writing this review—the tears are streaming down my face.

But what about those people who died? What about all the victims of mass shootings in this country? In searching for answers, I do feel the film sheds light on mental illness, and the need to elicit kindness in the world. People genuinely are struggling, and as a society, we need to have empathy for those less fortunate, not kick them to the curb.

In terms of the film as a whole, I did find that it dragged in a few parts, and the script needed further depth of characters; also, the ‘war on the wealthy’ plot seemed bizarre and unnecessary to the Joker origin tale. The cinematography and art direction are a plus here and at times, spectacular, especially the stairway scene in which Joker celebrates his newfound power. The musical score is a bit off as Eric Clapton’s “White Room,” seemed out of place, whereas the British (“Hey”) or “Rock and Roll Part 2” song seemed perfect, although there’s now a controversy over the songwriter’s 2006 pedophile conviction.

The Bottom-line: “Joker” is a proceed with caution film, with an Oscar-worthy performance by Joaquin Phoenix.

Credits: Directed by Todd Phillips; Written by Todd Phillips, Scott Silver

Starring: Joaquin Phoenix (Arthur Fleck/Joker), Robert De Niro (Murray Franklin), Zazie Beetz (Sophie Dumond)

Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures

Running Time: 122 minutes

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Sarah Knight Adamson

Sarah Knight Adamson

Chicago-based Sarah Knight Adamson is the film critic for the Internationally syndicated radio show Hollywood 360, broadcast on over 90 stations. She has served on film panels for the Chicago Public Library, been a juror at film festivals, and writes about film for Naperville Magazine. She is founder and publisher of Sarah’s Backstage Pass website, where her written work appears.