No film captured the zeitgeist in 2019 better than "Joker."
As if we needed it, Batman's arch nemesis Joker gets an origin story. The Joker has been played by a shocking number of people, if you count animated versions. After Heath Ledger's Best Supporting Actor win posthumously in 2009 at the Oscars, you could maybe think, 'how could it get any better?' At least that's what I thought and continue to think after seeing "Joker."
Joaquin Phoenix plays the titular role of Joker or Arthur Fleck. Phoenix looks like he weighs 100 pounds, has an Anton Chigurh haircut, and an uncontrollable urge to laugh no matter the situation.
Fleck is a clown-for-hire and aspiring stand up comedian. It's quite clear that Fleck has a hard time hacking it at either career. We follow Fleck as he takes care of his sick—physically and mentally—mother (Frances Conroy) and watches Murray Franklin's (Robert DeNiro) late night show, who takes a special interest in mocking Fleck's stand up routine.
The film is directed by Todd Phillips, best known for raunchy comedies "Old School" and "The Hangover" trilogy. When it was announced the film would be directed by Phillips, I wondered what he would have to say that was meaningful.
I don't particularly believe Phillips has anything to say and "Joker" proves it.
"Joker" tries to scratch the surface of discussing mental health and the lack of services available for people who need help. It tries to take the themes of "Taxi Driver" and "The King of Comedy" and apply them to a superhero film. It tries to be a prestigious film. It tries to convince adults that superhero films should be taken more seriously.
Again, this film tries to be something it's not and I struggled through it all. This feels like a half baked brownie that runs all over the place when you cut into it. And, hey, some people like a soupy brownie, but I don't.
When Fleck turns from being the clown beaten by a gang of teenagers at the beginning to the murdering psychopath comic book fans know and love, it feels like watching a completely different movie.
My greatest criticism of the film is how Fleck's murders are portrayed. After Fleck kills a trio of Wayne Enterprise employees harassing him on the subway, he sprints to an empty bathroom and begins to dance. A symphony orchestra plays—a way to make the scene play more classy, I guess—as the man who will eventually become Joker in a matter of minutes begins to waltz. He takes his time, feeling free for the first time in his life.
After more murders, Fleck heads to a long set of stairs to dance out his feelings like Kevin Bacon in "Footloose." Instead of a symphony of strings playing, it's substituted for Gary Glitter's "Rock and Roll Part 2," a song more appropriate for a basketball game. I laughed while watching it because of how jarring the scene played. The song is misplaced feeling like Phillips is tired of all the more classical elements of the film and needs to inflect some frat boy nonsense in.
Believing this film should be compared to other Oscar nominees like "Parasite," "1917," and "The Irishman" is mind-boggling. There's very little that's special or important happening in this film.
But this movie is now the highest grossing R-rated film of all-time making over a billion dollars. It's cinematography and score is surprisingly compelling. Phoenix is an incredible actor that will likely win Best Actor at the Oscars and should've won years ago. And it tells a story that so many comic book fans wanted to be told. So why this film was so popular is not surprising.
But I can't shake the feeling "Joker" could've been so much more. It could've been a genre redefining film that puts the DC Universe in a different category from their Marvel counterparts.
Fleck and "Joker" try hard to be captivating and important, but it's everything other than those two things.
"Joker" is nominated for 11 Oscars, including Best Picture.