2.5/4, 2010s, Crime, Review, Todd Phillips


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Out of all the comic book movie’s I’ve seen, this is probably the one that wants to be taken seriously the most. So, let’s return the favor and take it seriously.

There’s a lot of noise in this film that distracts from the core of the film, and I think it really detracts from what would otherwise be a rather good character study. The noise confused things to a point that I had to consider the movie for a while just to piece through everything to determine what that core was, though. A lot of that is due to some, shall we say, curious filmmaking that intentionally causes confusion but is also unintentionally confused itself.

So, the core is about a man with mental health problems who has all of his support mechanisms pulled out from under him until he lashes out violently. This man is Arthur Fleck and part of his problems are the fact that he is a man driven by delusion. They extend from rather modest fantasies, such as his ability to make the world around him laugh through comedy, to those that are a bit more outlandish. There are three, though, that manifest in similar visual ways, and I think they highlight some of the problems with the film.

The first fantasy revolves around the late night talk show host Murray Franklin. Much like how Robert de Niro’s character Rupert Pupkin in The King of Comedy is obsessed with Jerry Lewis’s Jerry Langford, Arthur is obsessed with Franklin. It manifests in an obvious fantasy sequence where Arthur appears in Franklin’s audience, gets highlighted by Franklin, and even invited down to the stage where Franklin admits that he wishes he had a son just like Arthur. So, my issues with this are twofold. The first is the on-the-nose aspect of Franklin’s son admission. It’s Arthur imagining himself a daddy, and I just feel like it’s a bit too obvious in delivery, the rest of it is quite good. The other issue is that this largely disappears from the movie, even when Franklin comes back later. This fantasy gets replaced by two others.

The second fantasy involves an attractive single mother who lives down the hall in Arthur’s rundown apartment building. They share a single moment in an elevator and Arthur develops a friendship that blooms into something more. It’s only much later in the film that Arthur walks into her apartment and she reacts with horror at his presence that we realize he’s fantasized everything about their relationship since the elevator. Out of all three of the fantasies, this is the one that works best. It’s very good and rather subtly done until the reveal. The reveal is as obvious as Franklin’s son line and undermines the moment.

The third fantasy is actually a fantasy by proxy. Arthur lives with his mother who writes to the billionaire Thomas Wayne on a regular basis without ever getting a response. Arthur opens her letter one day to see that his mother flatly describes Arthur as Wayne’s son. Arthur instantly believes this and goes out to Wayne Manor where he has an improbable interaction with 10 year old Bruce Wayne before sneaking into a tuxedo affair in a movie theater (where everyone is watching Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times) and confronting Wayne in a bathroom alone. Wayne unloads on this stranger accosting him in a bathroom, telling Arthur that Arthur’s mother was a literal crazy person, he never slept with her, and Arthur was adopted. I really don’t think this third fantasy works at all. It’s the fact that it’s not really Arthur’s fantasy and yet it drives him for a solid block of the film. If the daddy issues had been made more of earlier, if Penny, Arthur’s mother, had actually made the connection to him much earlier, it might have worked. Maybe. I don’t really think so, though. This feels like extra stuff to make DC happy that they were including Batman stuff, although it may not be that at all.

Along all of this is the plot driven by Arthur’s job as a party clown, his mishandling of a handgun that gets him fired, and his self-defense against three investment bankers on a subway that kills all three. The bankers worked for Thomas Wayne, and Wayne’s reaction on television is the sort of thing you have a supervillain say unironically, about how poor people are clowns. This ignites a protest movement with people donning clown masks, shouting slogans about eating the rich, and handling several RESIST signs. I also feel like this is extra and just weighs the movie down. Arthur largely ignores the movement as it sprouts up and grows, occasionally wandering through protests and smiling through them. He’s uninvolved until the very end when the protestors save him.

So, let’s get into some real spoiler territory.

Arthur gets on Franklin’s show. A video of him bombing at an open mic night gets to Franklin who puts it on the air where he makes fun of Arthur. The bit creates enough buzz that the producers of the show find Arthur and invite him on. Arthur’s reached the end of his rope at this point, dresses up in his clown getup, and appears on the show where he admits to the murder of the three bankers. He justifies himself with a speech about how he finds things funny that other people don’t before drawing his pistol from his back pocket and shooting Franklin in the head.

First, let me say that the height of Arthur’s criminality being shooting a popular person in the head is a certain kind of refreshing. It’s not world-ending consequences, or about the robbing of some precious gemstone. No, it’s about a tangible piece of real violence. I love that.

And then the movie keeps going. Those protestors that Arthur’s been largely ignoring have decided to save Arthur by somehow knowing which police car he is, hitting hit as hard as they can with an ambulance, hoping that he’s still alive, and then dragging his body out through the window. Arthur slowly gets up and then dances on the hood of the car. Okay,…I can deal with this. Bringing Arthur and the protestors together in the end, providing some kind of grounds for a Crown Prince of Crime Army. Yeah, sure. It went too far for what I would have done, but I can accept it.

And then the movie keeps going. We suddenly see Arthur in a pristine white room and a pristine white shirt where he’s talking to a social worker about what he finds funny and his lack of remorse. He then leaves the room, leaving a bloody footprints as he goes with the implication that he murdered the social worker. So, is the movie really happening or not? That insistence on ambiguity in basic mechanical facts of the film frustrates me, but it’s not really what takes me onto the other side of the recommendation line.

What keeps me there is really the first half of the film. I like the second half a whole lot more than the first, but the first is poorly made and written. I really wish Thomas Wayne had been cut from the movie completely along with the protest movement. I find them both huge distractions to Arthur’s smaller story, and focusing on making this a more violent version of The King of Comedy would have worked better, I think. On top of that, scenes feel out of place and out of order. The prime example is the first two scenes. I think the movie originally began with Arthur talking to his original social worker, showcasing his mental state before giving us the scene where Arthur looks sad in a mirror before being jumped by some hoodlums and beaten. It just feels wrong with the order reversed, as it currently is in the film.

I wanted to like this film more, but it’s first half is just too messy with too much obfuscating the actual story at hand. The second half goes a good way making up for it, but not quite enough.

Netflix Rating: 3/5

Quality Rating: 2.5/4

2 thoughts on “Joker”

  1. “The first half was the worst…” Well, that’s interesting. I walked out at about the halfway mark.
    I could acknowledge the quality of the acting, especially Arthur and his mother, but there was no balance to the story and in the end I very much did not enjoy sitting in the dark and watching this go on and on. Maybe when it shows up on streaming I might try it again.


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