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Review: Joker (2019)

Is EVERYONE in Gotham City an inexplicable asshole?

There were so many factors telling me to not bother seeing Joker (2019). The lukewarm reception, the criticism of how it portrays the mentally ill, the crude way it attempts sympathy for a murderous psychopath…not to mention director Todd Phillip’s ridiculous and petulant claims that woke culture has ruined comedy. Still, because I’m an enormous Batman fan and I’ve been looking forward to seeing this movie for months, I ponied up the $17 to see Joker. Let me tell you, it was without a doubt one of the worst decisions I’ve made at the movies this year. And I paid money to see Serenity (2019). By the way, you can check out my review for that movie here.

Screen Shot 2019-10-10 at 7.08.15 PM
Credit: / Warner Bros. Pictures

Based on the DC Comics character of the same name, Joker follows Arthur Fleck, an aspiring stand-up comedian who lives with his impoverished mother, Penny. Struggling with severe mental health issues, Arthur is berated and abused by the world around him. Eventually he grows tired of being the butt of everyone’s joke and begins the transformation from regular citizen into the iconic Batman villain.

I hated this movie. I swear I’m not just saying that to be edgy or controversial or different. Truly, this was a chaotic mess of a movie that I loathed entirely. God, where do I even begin? First of all, holy shit is this movie bleak. Obviously I knew going in that this wasn’t going to be a light, campy comedy, but that doesn’t change the fact that like a Dementor’s kiss, Joker will rob you of any joy you have. I totally understand and accept that it’s a dark, gritty drama, but come on people, it’s the Joker. Even The Dark Knight (2008) brought a touch of macabre fun to its crazed clown. By the way, you can check out my review for that movie here. I’ve watched horror movies easier to sit through than this. Seriously, I had to watch cartoons when I got home just so I could get an ounce of serotonin into my brain.

Originally I thought, “a gritty and grounded character-driven story for one of the greatest supervillains of all time? Sound great!” After seeing the end result though, it turns out that the idea was much better on paper. There was an absence of playfulness, a trait, no matter how twisted, can be found in just about every previous portrayal of the Joker. What I think would have been much truer to character and ultimately made the movie more enjoyable, is if it had been made as a dark comedy. That way Phillips could still have his scenes of absolute mayhem and disgust (we’ll talk about it) but there would also be an element of fun and grim comedy that is so on-brand for the Joker. But Joker just doesn’t seem to get it. It seems to be far more concerned with being gritty and “real” and giving a finger to the world rather than creating an interesting or memorable outing for its title character. If the tone had been just a tad lighter, somehow mixing the menace of Jack Nicholson in Batman (1989) with the whimsy of Mark Hamill in Batman: The Animated Series (1992 – 1995), than I think Joker would have been a winning entry in the pantheon of Batman-related movies. Maybe it would have won over more audiences. I’m not kidding you guys. During some scenes of horrific violence, there were people sitting around me who were getting physically uncomfortable.

There are so many frustrating, annoying and down right cringe-inducing elements to Joker. At times, you’ll forget that you’re watching a movie about a DC supervillain and insist that you’ve been duped into seeing the bizarre and over-artistic debut of a pretentious film student. Often I felt like I was being talked down to. Like Phillips was saying to me, “you don’t get how clever and revolutionary all this is!” There’s a scene where Arthur just crawls into a fridge, seemingly without any reasoning and it has no effect on the story nor is it brought up again. Why? What was the point? What was the point of any of this? That’s the question you’ll find yourself asking throughout Joker.

The story itself is uninspired and predictable, an insult to audiences after being made to endure the sluggish two hour runtime.This damn script…I was severely unimpressed by its level of mediocrity. Okay, so admittedly, the movie starts off on a promising note. We’re shown just how awful Arthur’s life is and can at least understand why he may choose to turn to a life of crime. Making his terror-inducing laugh be the result of an uncontrollable medical condition was a nice touch. However, as the story drags on and Arthur endures more and more abuse and misfortune, you’re just like, “okay, I get it! Just put on the makeup and the suit already and go full villain! We’ve only got like 20 minutes left!” I was exhausted and ready for the movie to end.

Sigh…but the worst part of Joker by far is its depiction of mental illness. The movie makes no effort to explain what Arthur suffers from, choosing instead to just label him as “mentally ill,” a blanket-term they hope will excuse all the horrific acts he commits throughout the movie. Couple that with the overwhelming amount of abuse Arthur receives from literally EVERYONE in Gotham City and the glee he feels when he commits his first crime, and you have a movie whose central message reads as follows: “If you struggle with mental illness and are the constant target of abuse, it’s a good idea to go on a mass killing-spree. You’ll gain a legion of followers and finally feel free!” The line, “what do you get when you cross a mentally ill loner with a society that treats him like crap?” is said literally before a gruesome murder. Maybe I’m being slightly hyperbolic or overly sensitive, but it’s hard to watch Joker without feeling icky. It felt like the movie was making you pick one of the following ways to feel about the Joker: Demonize him like everyone else in his life, or root for the ruthless murderer to get his revenge. Joker is misleading, unenjoyable and if I’m being frank, gross. I hope I’m not coming off as some conservative stuffed shirt. I’m open to movies about morally ambiguous protagonists but everything about the way Joker chose to handle its delicate themes just made my skin crawl.

If there is one genuinely great thing about Joker, it’s Joaquin Phoenix’s astounding performance. His portrayal of the title character is phenomenal and you can tell he’s not just acting: He’s ACTING. It’s an undeniably great performance, one that will leave you with an uneasy sense of dread. It’s amazing how Phoenix can convey loneliness, pain and even evil with just a quick glance of his eyes. He’s creepy with a capital “C,” demonstrating the type of skills that only come from the most dedicated and capable of performers. Supporting cast members Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz and Frances Conroy all play their roles well enough, but Phoenix is the star of the movie for good reason.

I never want to watch this movie again. In fact, I would very much like to pretend that it doesn’t exist. The only way I can recommend seeing this movie is if you’re a huge fan of either Phoenix or the Joker. Even then, I feel like there are so many better movies featuring Phoenix and the Joker than you could watch. I was disappointed by Joker. I’m sure there will be plenty of people who’ll tell me that I’m taking the movie too seriously, or that I don’t get how brilliant it is, but I can’t help it. I know how I felt after leaving the theatre and that feeling was so negative that there’s no way I’m going to put myself through it again. This clown turned my hopeful smile into a bewildered grimace.

Have you seen Joker? What did you think?

Let me know in the comments or on social media!

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