Arts, Features

REVIEW: Todd Phillips’ “Joker” entertains but doesn’t amaze

In spite of Joaquin Phoenix’s stellar turn as one of comics’ most recognized characters, “Joker” is brought down by a somewhat weak story and strange creative choices. 

Actor Joaquin Phoenix at a 2018 press conference. Phoenix stars in “Joker,” a highly anticipated film that was released on Friday to mixed reviews. COURTESY OF WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

“Joker” tells the story of Arthur Fleck, an isolated and mentally ill resident of Gotham City. Fleck aspires to be a stand-up comedian, having been told by his mother that his purpose is “to bring laughter and joy to the world.” However, his erratic mental state and the constant torment he experiences at the hands of Gotham’s less than empathetic citizens lead him down a dark path.

Phoenix’s performance is truly mesmerizing. Whether he is having an uncontrollable fit of laughter or dancing down a flight of steps, Phoenix brings so much energy and physicality to the role that he brings a depth and complexity to Fleck that jumps off the screen.

That being said, the film’s screenplay sometimes makes it feel like Phoenix’s talents are being wasted. 

Comparisons to the late Heath Ledger, who received a posthumous Academy Award for his performance as the Joker in Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight,” are inevitable. However, since the film spends far more time chronicling Fleck’s transition into the character there is not enough of Phoenix’s Joker on screen to even make a comparison. So much time is spent on building up Fleck and explaining his turn to villany that by the time he has fully transformed into the classic character, it feels like an afterthought. 

Director Todd Phillips was less interested in bringing the Joker to life and more focused on writing a character study. One might wonder if the movie was called “Joker” to attract viewers who otherwise wouldn’t have watched a grimy, unsettling character piece.

This would all be less of an issue if Fleck’s descent into madness were instigated by more interesting story beats. After a while, it starts to feel like the same series of events repeating over and over: Fleck is unfairly bullied and he thus takes one step closer to transforming into the Joker. 

But, it is refreshing to see a comic book film fully embrace its R rating, with graphic violence and tense scenes that will satisfy horror fans — a trend that has continued from the success of “Deadpool” and “Logan.”

Those who expect a classic Batman story from “Joker” will be left disappointed. Although the film incorporates the Wayne family into its narrative, it is primarily a story about one man, and how he is pushed towards his darker impulses. 

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