"Joker" is a mesmerizing mashup of Scorsese and DC Comics
“Joker” starring Joaquin Phoenix is grounded by a great script and incredible performances making it one of the best comic book movies ever produced.
Director Todd Phillips is known for raunchy comedies like “Old School” and “The Hangover” trilogy, but with “Joker” he proves he’s capable of more than a single genre. It’s fitting then, that while “Joker” isn’t a comedy, its protagonist exists on the peripheries of that world before taking a dark turn. While based on preexisting characters, this feels like a personal film from Phillips, who’s perhaps celebrating an end to his career as comedy director with violent, gleeful abandon.
“Joker” is about Arthur Fleck, a loner with mental illness who lives with his elderly mother in their tenement apartment in a run-down section of Gotham City. Fleck is employed as a party clown and becomes increasingly disaffected with the city and its inhabitants. His dream is to be a stand-up comedian and bring joy to people, but his mental illness and pseudobulbar affect, a condition which creates uncontrollable, pathological laughing, hinders him.
What unfolds is the never-before-seen origin story of one of DC Comics most popular villains, Batman’s arch nemesis, The Joker.
“Joker” draws heavy inspiration from two iconic Martin Scorsese films, “The King of Comedy,” and “Taxi Driver.” Scorsese was originally reported as a producer on the film but is never actually credited. Both films deal with mentally unstable protagonists who become violent to achieve their ends.
In “Taxi Driver”, Robert DeNiro plays Travis Bickle, a young cabbie who becomes increasingly disgusted with the people of New York. His slow descent into violence ends up turning him into a hero in the eyes of many, and in “Joker,” Fleck’s violence inspires a city’s disaffected underclass to idolize him.
“The King of Comedy” once again sees Robert DeNiro in the leading role as Rupert Pupkin, a wannabe stand-up comedian obsessed with late-night talk show host and comedian Jerry Langford. Pupkin takes matters into his own violent hands and ends up getting booked on Langford’s show. In “Joker,” Fleck is a wannabe comedian obsessed with late-night talk show host Murray Franklin, played coincidentally by none other than Robert DeNiro.
The similarities don’t end there. “Joker” is set in Gotham City in the 1970’s amidst a sanitation strike which is symbolic of the corruption and degradation of the city’s people. It’s not just physical garbage piling up in the streets, it is the actual people whose political and economic disenfranchisement has degraded their morals and quality of life.
“Taxi Driver” was filmed in New York City in 1975 amidst an actual sanitation strike. It’s clear that Phillips and co-writer Scott Silver drew heavily on these two classic Scorsese films as an inspiration for The Joker’s origin story and did so in a conscious manner.
The performances here are incredible. DeNiro delivers a solid turn as the late-night talk show host, and Frances Conroy does a wonderful job as Fleck’s mother. Character actor and immense talent Glen Fleshler nearly steals every scene he’s in as Fleck’s coworker Randall at the clown service.
Yet the greatest performance comes from Joaquin Phoenix in the lead role as Arthur Fleck. While the script is well written and the film superbly shot, it wouldn’t be half the movie it accomplishes being without the intense vulnerability Phoenix is able to bring to the role. Losing over fifty pounds to play the part, Phoenix physically embodies the suffering of this character. In one scene, hunched over shirtless, his shoulder blades seem to stick up out of his skin like bony wings trying to escape the confines of their tortured flesh. Joaquin Phoenix doesn’t just portray this character, he physically and emotionally transforms into him. The result is beautiful, heartbreaking, and mesmerizing.
While aspects of the film are somewhat derivative of Scorsese, Phillips manages to do the impossible and tell a riveting, deeply affecting film in the generally overdone and underwritten genre of comic book movies. It takes no knowledge of or passion for the comics these characters are based on to enjoy the film, but those who have that knowledge and passion will find it even more rewarding. This film might be about a troubled person committing heinous acts, but even more so than its predecessors it manages to humanize the suffering and tell a story about what can happen when society turns its back on those who need help the most.