This has been an incredibly hard review to write. I’ve been trying to write it for a week now.
I saw “Joker” last Thursday night at our own Foothills theater. It’s a movie that had been hyped quiet a bit, but I just couldn’t get overly excited.
Maybe it’s the fact that aside from 2017’s “Wonder Woman,” no DC Universe movie has overly impressed me. Last year’s “Aquaman” had its moments, of course; but, overall, DC has been rather lacking in can’t miss blockbusters.
That was my first mistake, because I thought “Joker” could be compared to a comic book movie. While the origin of the film’s characters may have been based in DC Comics, there was nothing about this film that felt reminiscent of the comic books I’d read as a kid.
Joaquin Phoenix stars as the title character, whose real name is Arthur Fleck. He’s a troubled man who lives with his mother, Penny (Frances Conroy), and suffers from a brain condition that causes him to laugh at random times. He even carries a card that explains the condition to those who might think he’s just being rude. He’s a former mental patient who can’t seem to find his place in society. He works as a clown-for-hire, securing odd jobs at children’s hospitals, or alongside the side of a road waving a company sign. He finds small moments of happiness watching “The Murray Franklin Show,” which is a take on “The Johnny Carson Show” with Robert De Niro as the title host.
Arthur doesn’t have any friends. He’s got his mom, and he’s got coworkers, He’s even got a social worker who helps him get his seven medications, but he doesn’t have friends. He dreams of being a stand-up comedian and carries a notebook with him at all times, so he can write down jokes that come to him. It’s a sad, miserable life that’s hard to watch.
That seems to be the point of “Joker,” though. Most of the movie is sad and miserable to watch.
That’s not to say it’s not a decent film. Phoenix is a talented actor, and he loses himself in this role, as he often does. He even lost 52 pounds for the role, which called for Arthur to be extremely thin. The supporting cast is decent, too. Conroy, Zazie Beetz and Brett Cullen all do a fine job as Arthur’s mom, love interest and Thomas Wayne, respectively. We even meet a pint-sized Bruce Wayne (Dante Pereira-Olson) and Alfred Pennyworth (Douglas Hodge).
While there are a few side story lines, most of the film’s action lies with Phoenix and Arthur’s tale. He’s spent his entire life being miserable. He even tells his mother at one point how he’s never had a single moment of joy. The “jokes” in his notebook tell a similar tale. One reads that he hopes his death will make more “cents” than his life does. Arthur really doesn’t have any friends, y’all. His entire life is made up of moments where people make fun of him or bully him. Even his own mother gets in on the action when she questions his decision to be a comedian: “Don’t you have to be funny?”
Again and again, we watch Arthur be berated. By “friends,” family and complete strangers. He’s beaten up by teenagers and tweens within the film’s first 5-10 minutes. It’s a string of abuse and bullying that carries on for about two hours, basically the film’s entire run time. Arthur is put down again and again, whether it’s side eyes, words or actions. When he finally does snap and does something violent, I’m not completely sure we aren’t supposed to believe he was justified in his actions. (And, to be honest, the guys he initially kills are jackasses, so maybe he was.)
You see, the film also places a divide between the folks who have it all — like Thomas Wayne — and the folks who are struggling to get by. Arthur’s violence creates a rift in Gotham, leading the have-nots to start protesting. At times, it feels like the movie is definitely trying to send a political message, but I was honestly too busy being depressed by the bullying and mental illness to pay attention to any underlying messages. I mean, there’s even a little person who I’m pretty certain was only cast for the purpose of making short jokes. Maybe not, but, with this film, everyone is a victim, and everyone is a punchline.
And that’s a bit of a problem. You see, I knew the film would be dark. In fact, I expected it. But, I didn’t expect it to be completely devoid of joy. It’s an incredibly heavy film. It’s well done, but it’s heavy and leaves the viewer feeling like they’ve just gone 10 rounds in a heavyweight boxing match. It’s mentally exhausting and desperately dark. (After seeing it, one coworker declared he needed to only watch comedies for a month while surrounded by puppies. Another friend said she believed the film was well done, but she wouldn’t sit through it again.)
And at the end of the day, that sums it up. I’m glad I saw “Joker.” I really am. But I’ll never watch it again. The film is a box office success, even breaking records, but it’s a film that is dark for the sake of being dark. It’s a film that spurs police to be stationed at the theater entrance, just in case. It’s a film that insinuates that violence is the only answer when society is pushed too far, and you just get what you deserve.
This isn’t a comic book movie, and it’s not a thriller. It’s a glimpse into a psychotic mind.