My critique of this movie will be as scrambled as the Joker’s thoughts. And I’ll forever take a multiple-choice approach to review this film because it’s brilliant, problematic and therapeutic all at the same time.
When I left the theater, I ranted about movies based on iconic characters. I told my friend that I would have liked this movie better if it had nothing to do with the Joker. I also said this was an example of how creatively bankrupt Hollywood is. My evidence: Writer/director Todd Phillips took two Martin Scorsese movies, “Taxi Driver” and “The King of Comedy,” slapped them together and gave them a Joker finish.
After I was done bombarding my friend with frustrations, I called my wife, who was nearly asleep. Clearly, the Joker wasn’t the only villain that night. I told her that it was pretentious garbage that encouraged the audience to sympathize with a violent criminal and that the movie was two hours of Joaquin Phoenix showing off the weirdest psychotic quirks I’ve ever seen: gyrating his stick-thin body, cackling at inopportune moments, and dancing like he’s in a psychotic ballet. Then I calmed down, hung up, drove home and began my less vocal, internal analysis.
After thinking for a few minutes, beautiful but haunting images flooded my brain from the film. I tried to think of the flaws in this movie, and I could think of so few. Moreover, I recognized the artistry of the cinematography, the direction and performances. “Joker” isn’t the greatest film of all time, and I think that using the word “masterpiece” is a step too far. However, this film should be appreciated because it showcases a cinematographer and director’s impressive development into two cinematic artists. “Joker” is also another example to reference when proving that Joaquin Phoenix is one of the best actors of all time.
Lawrence Sher, the cinematographer of “Joker,” was once known for comedies and occasional indies. He is also Todd Phillips’ go-to cinematographer since they worked together on “The Hangover.” With “The Hangover,” Sher relied on high-key lighting with minor desaturation and minimal changes in shot composition. His work had an edge, but the films he shot didn’t require a lot of creativity because the comedic writing and acting did most of the work. “Joker,” on the other hand, is Sher’s show, and it’s exciting to see him do something so bold, artistic and sophisticated.
His shots are gorgeous because they have both muted color tones and bright color values fighting for dominance. Yet that fight is never distracting. This combination is always intended to benefit the story and establish the mood in a scene. My only qualm with Sher’s work is that he shot it digitally. Every shot is beautiful because he used an Alexa 65 camera, which is one of the best in the business, but any digital shot is going to lack the gritty realism of the 1970s era that Sher is invoking.
Writer/director Todd Phillips is also indebted to the 1970s, but his nods to it are a bit more blatant and distracting. For instance, characters hold finger guns up to their heads like Robert De Niro did in “Taxi Driver,” and the plot of the film is inspired by that film as well as “The King of Comedy.” I can’t, however, fault Phillips for making a film that is a love letter to the 1970s and ’80s cinema. Some of my favorite movies and TV shows are love letters to classic cinema. “Stranger Things,” “Super 8” and “Django Unchained” come to mind.
Focusing on the comparisons is also a disservice to the director who, like his cinematographer, is growing as an artist. Phillips was a talented yet hit-or-miss comedy director, but with this movie, he swings for the fences and, more often than not, hits a home run. The biggest grand slam he hit with this film is casting Joaquin Phoenix. The dramatic fable of man-turned-clown-turned-criminal wouldn’t work without his performance.
When people evaluate live-action Joker performances, a common aspect to focus on is the actor’s laugh. Nicholson’s was vicious and jolly. Ledger’s laugh sometimes had a low sardonic tone, and other times was a high-pitched cackle that sent tingles down my spine. Leto sounded like Ledger and a squeaky door had a baby. Phoenix, however, laughs with a broken spirit. He is a man who has nothing to laugh about. His laugh chokes him and comes out at inopportune moments. For that reason, it might be the most haunting of all.
Phoenix’s performance is so much more than a frightening laugh, though. The actor turns the Joker into a madman who doesn’t know how to be “human” and is forced to put on a happy face when he’s most damaged. For Phoenix’s Joker to act human, he mimics what he sees on television or what an audience in a comedy club crowd is doing. Unfortunately, his cues are still a bit off, which makes him that much more unsettling. He laughs seconds after others, or he smiles when it’s not appropriate.
These choices are all secondary, though, because Phoenix is most brilliant in the film when he’s seen dancing in a children’s hospital, spinning a sign for work, or walking on to the set of a talk show with a smile on his face. These are my favorite moments because the Joker in this film is not a happy character. His smile is an act.
Phoenix’s Joker is a twisted reflection of society in the 1970s, and to an extent, today, a culture that tells us to put on a happy face when the world piles on. But the problem is that a smile on the face of a fractured man is not genuine and serves no purpose to him. It’s a cork on a champagne bottle ready to burst.
Burst, he does. This Joker is violent, so please don’t take your kids to this movie. He is not the Nicholson, Ledger or Leto Joker. He is a different beast that excites and concerns me. He is a walking contradiction, and I don’t think I’ll ever come to a finite conclusion about his movie. I believe that is the way he’d prefer it.