November 23, 2020

The battle for the aesthetic legitimacy of comic book movies has been waging for decades. Many of the combatants in favour of treating superhero media seriously have comedically overblown the acting bona fides required to play the Batman villain Joker, treating the role with the reverence usually reserved for a top thespian portraying King Lear. False rumours following Heath Ledger’s death after playing the part in 2008’s The Dark Knight led fanboys to believe in the role’s inherent danger, and the dedication required to be convincing as the Clown Prince of Crime.   

This year, actor Joaquin Phoenix does a bang-up job in director Todd Phillips’ Joker, all without the ludicrous and juvenile affectations that plagued Jared Leto’s portrayal on and off-screen. Ultimately, his performance is the film’s primary saving grace.

Phoenix plays Arthur Fleck, a struggling clown and stand-up comedian living with his ailing mother Penny (Frances Conroy). Fleck and his mother idolize Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), host of a talk show Fleck dreams of appearing on. Zazie Beets appears as Sophie, Fleck’s neighbour and love interest. The film charts Fleck’s absurd string of bad luck, leading to his damaged psyche’s rebirth as the titular villainous clown.

Fleck’s financial issues are the primary reason for his collapse. His social services are cut, and along with them his access to the medications he needs; and the degrading work he performs as a sign-twirler puts him into unfortunate contact with Gotham City’s other struggling citizens. A terrible incident ties Fleck’s clown persona to the growing unrest of the city’s downtrodden, setting the stage for social upheaval.

All of this would be more interesting if the script’s depiction of class struggle wasn’t so one note. Despite having ample political reasons for an uprising, Phillip’s misanthropy curdles the film’s protesters into angry and mindless sadists. There’s never a real sense of a city on the brink. An unintentionally hilarious scene depicts an affluent suit crooning Sondheim’s Send in the Clowns in mockery of Fleck, pushing Joker toward camp when it strains for arthouse gravity.

The range in Joaquin’s performance is the primary reason to watch Joker. His mannerisms extend from flamboyant self-regard, to Andy Kaufman-esque earnestness, to terrifying fury, sometimes in the span of a few minutes. The primary issue is that Phoenix has already expressed these sides of himself in better films. His terrifying physicality was put to use formidably in The Master, and his portrayal of a withdrawn depressive in Two Lovers has more depth than anything in Joker.

Phillip’s blunt force direction is mostly ponderous and hampers the film. His references to Scorsese’s The King of Comedy and Taxi Driver merely remind the viewer that there’s better ways to spend two hours. However, his morbid vision has its charms. The violence in Joker is disturbing and suitably snappy, a far cry from Marvel’s militaristic disregard of death’s real import, and it’s comforting to see a comic book film that allows a performance to take centre-stage, rather than the clashing of murky CGI pixels we’re used to. It’s also refreshing to see Thomas Wayne, the billionaire father of future bat-guy Bruce Wayne, depicted as a loathsome mayoral candidate unaware of the disenfranchised citizens’ legitimate rage – the film’s only clever twist on its source material.

Joker pushes the comic book movie into darker territory than it’s been before, with a moving performance from Phoenix, but struggles for insight, failing to elevate the form past homage.

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