One of the most debated questions in cinema over the past several decades has been “who played the best Batman?” Not far behind that is the natural follow-up question, which is “who was the best Joker?” Since his debut in 1940, the Joker’s bitter rivalry with Batman is so deep that it makes the Hatfield versus McCoy feud seem like a tiny misunderstanding. For the past 11 years, the late Heath Ledger’s performance as the clowned-face menace still stands firmly in the forefront of most moviegoers minds as the best Joker portrayal ever on film – so much so, that it even earned the actor a posthumous Oscar for best supporting actor. Now, in 2019, director Todd Phillips has taken the helm to create his own Joker origin story in this self-titled film.
There was a little bit of nervousness by some fans of the Batman universe over Phillips getting the nod to direct this film, since his other major films had all been comedies (albeit successful ones) like Old School and The Hangover trilogy. In the same manner that Peter Farrelly went from directing the likes of Dumb and Dumber to directing the Oscar-winning film Green Book, Phillips has now also made the best of his own transitional opportunity. His dark, depressing view of the Joker character was brilliant, and the cinematography is tremendous. Phillips found a way to write the remarkable screenplay in such a way that, as a viewer, you almost feel bad for the titled antagonist. The Joker’s backstory is one of deception, abandonment and misery. While other versions of the Joker in years past have focused more on the cartoonish bad guy persona of the villain, Phillips instead chose to focus on the internal suffering that went on inside Joker’s mind, which made him more relatable from a human perspective.
Joker takes place in what appears to be during a past period circa 1980, where Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), who lives with his mother in a small Gotham City apartment building, is a struggling clown who has aspirations of becoming a stand-up comic. Unfortunately, Fleck is following a dream that isn’t quite suitable for him. “Don’t you have to be funny to be a comedian?” Fleck’s mother Penny (played by Frances Conroy) asks him with unintended sarcasm in one of the early scenes of the movie. He realizes that people are really laughing at him, rather than with him, despite his best efforts.
Another unique caveat to Phillip’s original screenplay was the idea of making Fleck suffer from a disorder, which caused him to have uncontrollable laughing spells. This condition makes this Joker appear even more unstable on camera, as there are scenes where you can’t tell if Fleck is laughing or crying.
Fleck would have a life-changing event happen to him on the train one night when he saw three rich boy bullies antagonizing an innocent young woman. Those men wind up being employees of Wayne Enterprises, and thus the connection is made between Fleck and the Wayne family.
Thomas Wayne (played by Brett Cullen), is a controversial wealthy businessman who has aspirations of becoming a political figure in Gotham City. However, those in the lower economical class of Gotham don’t like him because they feel as though he only favors the rich. All of this, as well as a twist from Phillips regarding the relationship between Wayne and Fleck, equate to how and why the Joker’s beef has brewed over time with the Wayne family.
The other life-altering event that happened to Fleck was when one of his failed stand-up comedy attempts was filmed and aired on the Murray Franklin Show. Franklin (played by Robert De Niro) was equivalent to a Johnny Carson-type late night show host of the time and was one of Fleck’s idols. However, once Franklin invites Fleck to join him on his show, neither one of their lives would ever be the same again.
Like the riots throughout Gotham City amidst the beginning of Joker’s reign of terror, I think the majority of the cinematic universal would freak out if Phoenix is not at least nominated for an Oscar for this role. In fact, up to this point in the movie season, I believe it’s his award to lose. Although Heath Ledger’s portrayal of Joker remains my favorite, Phoenix’s sadistic approach to his portrayal of the maniacal character was spellbinding and almost equally as flawless in its own way.
Even though I fell in love with movies and the Batman storyline because of Tim Burton’s Batman back in 1989, and despite the fact that Jack Nicholson’s Joker rendition in that film was epic, I think it’s time to push it further back in the rear-view mirror at this point. If Ledger remains the number 1A Joker to the masses, then Phoenix should absolutely be 1B.
Joker will be an interesting case study this awards season. In my opinion, it would be hard to exclude this film from Best Picture consideration. However, in today’s climate, I wonder if the Academy would reward such a movie and wind up shying away from it. Phillips could also evolve from directing mindless comedies to becoming an Academy Award winner. Joaquin Phoenix is, I believe, a lock to earn an Oscar nomination. The score by Hildur Guðnadóttir, filled with lingering, haunting cello chords provided the soundtrack for Joker’s craziness masterfully and should strongly be considered for an Oscar as well.
The only negative I would say about Joker, is that at times it comes off as a scene-by-scene acting seminar put on Joaquin Phoenix. I can’t recall a scene sans Phoenix, and some back story scenes featuring other characters could have provided a little more plot depth. With that being said though, Phoenix was truly spectacular, and it’s a joke that he has yet to claim an Oscar win in his career. He has already been nominated in the past for his iconic roles in The Master, Walk the Line, and Gladiator. Hopefully for him, the fourth time will be the charm.
In the same way The Dark Knight introduced us all to a new kind of superhero film, Joker gives us the new prototype for everything an origin film should be. It is a remarkable piece of filmmaking that literally and metaphorically parallels seamlessly to troubling issues in real life, which I believe is an integral part to its success. Joker not only has set the bar for comic book villain films going forward, but it also simultaneously has made the new Taxi Driver for this generation.
MATTER RATING: 9/10
OSCAR SCALE: 8/10 (Best Picture, Actor, Director, Cinematography, Original Screenplay, Original Score)
BY: CHRIS GUEST