Movie review: Joker

October 11, 2019

HOLLYWOOD used to cook up origin stories for superheroes. Now, they come up with a back story for a notorious villain, Joker, who has been the enemy of Batman for so long. So many actors have played Joker before, starting with Cesar Romero on TV in th 60s and Mark Hamill in the popular animated series.

On the big screen, the list includes Jack Nicholson in the 1989 “Batman”, Jared Leto in “Suicide Squad” (a big hit) and the late Heath Ledger in “The Dark Knight” (which gave him a posthumous Oscar best supporting actor award). Now comes Joaquin Phoenix playing the title role in “Joker”, directed by Todd Phillips, who did “The Hangover” comedy series.

What the movie tries to do is to make the Joker character an endearing one. They want us to sympathize with him and to forgive him for turning into a badass since he has been oppressed by everyone all his life. One even gets the impression that they want us to cheer him and give an approval to what he does since he was unjustifiably brutalized before.

The story is set in Gotham some decades ago, but it actually looks more like a decaying and dystopian Big Apple with everything in shambles. Phoenix as Arthur Fleck works with a company that provides clowns for various events. We first see him as a clown on the sidewalk advertising the ongoing closing out sale in a store.

Some teenage punks then gang up on him and beat him up. His boss even blames him for what happened. So kawawa. Arthur is obviously mentally challenged. He consults a government doctor for therapy who sees his morbid notes on his diary during their sessions and still ends his supply of medicines needed for him to stay sane, allegedly due to budget cutbacks. Really so kawawa.

He takes care of his sick mom, Penny (Frances Conroy), who keeps on trying to contact her former rich boss, Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen). She used to work for him and thinks he’d be willing to help her and Arthur now that they’re so materially deprived. Later, he will learn a secret about his identity that his mom harbors and this makes him even more so kawawa.

Arthur and his mom both enjoy watching a talk show hosted by Robert De Niro as Murray Franklin, who channels in Johnny Carson. Arthur’s ambition is to be a stand up comic and he dreams of someday being a guest in Murray’s show where Murray will lavish praise on his talent. Arthur finds romance in a black single mom (Zazie Beets) who lives on the same floor in their apartment building. She encourages him but it doesn’t seem to have a truly positive effect on him.

Another clown gives him a gun that he can use for defense. And when three men bully him inside the subway train, he uses the gun to kill them, ala-‘Death Wish’. It’s his first taste of violence and it gives him undue notoriety as the mysterious vigilante who gives hell to abusive rich types from Wall Street the comeuppance they deserve for taking advantage of other people. Protesters wearing masks of a clown rally for him as a symbol for their hate against the establishment and the unequal distribution of wealth in their society, resulting to violent riots in the streets.

At this point, everyone has wronged him, including his idol Murray the talk show host who makes fun of him in his TV program. So when he appears in Murray’s show as a clown and asked himself to be introduced as Joker, you know this is going to be the start of his career as the supervillain nemesis of Bruce Wayne, who’s also seen in this movie as a young boy Arthur meets when he tries to visit and talk to Thomas Wayne.

Don’t say this is a spoiler as we already know that the Joker’s being a psychopathic killer is the end game for his character. We just hope this movie will not serve as an inspiration for other wackos in real life (and we all know there are so many of them in the U.S. who just suddenly shoot people in schools and malls at random) and make it as their excuse for committing horrifyingly violent acts.

Technically, the film is superbly crafted, from the very dark production design showing a city that has become a very toxic environment and the cinematography that vividly accentuates it on screen, to the terrific musical score that manages to sustain the film’s foreboding mood and even gets to include Frank Sinatra’s “That’s Life” and “Send in the Clowns”.

Joaquin Phoenix’s character study of Arthur aka Joker is being talked about as a sure Oscar winner. It’s the kind of role that is really flashy, showy, asking to be noticed  or even begging to get an award, just like De Niro’s role in “Taxi Driver” where his “Are you talking to me” is given tribute here. Arthur is afflicted with an ailment that chokes him then makes him laugh uncontrollably. And when he laughs, he cackles, just like Mark Hamill in the animated series. He really took time to lose weight so he’d look properly emaciated for the role, something that Christian Bale did before in “The Machinist”.

Phoenix gives the character some new dimensions, like those fabulous dance moves that make you recall Charlie Chaplin, to whom the movie pays first rate homage. As a whole, he totally committed himself as Joker and gives it a creepily effective take as he gets more and more unnervingly unhinged and nihilistic, for which he deserves, at the very least, a nomination. He has been nominated three times before, would he now finally win?

But this is a year where so many other actors are predicted to be nominated. Among movies that have already been shown, those who got noticed are Taron Egerton as Elton John in “Rocketman” and Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”. In movies yet to be released, there’s Adam Driver whose performance as a man going through a stormy divorce with Scarlett Johansson in “Marriage Story” got so much praise in various international filmfests. Other frontrunners are Robert De Niro as a mobster in Martin Scorcese’s “The Irishman” for Netflix (De Niro won the Oscar before for Scorcese’s “Raging Bull”), Christian Bale as race car driver Ken Miles in “Ford Vs. Ferrari”, and Jonathan Pryce (who has never been nominated) as today’s well-loved Pope Francis in “The Two Popes” with Anthony Hopkins as the past pope, Benedict XVI (this is directed by Brazilian filmmaker Fernando Meirelles who did the Oscar-nominated “City of God”). So, good luck to Joker so he won’t be so kawawa naman!.