Movie Review: The Joker


Actor Joaquin Phoenix masterfully plays the vintage villain as a mentally-ill psychopath, but Phoenix’s performance is overshadowed by poor writing and underdeveloped themes.

German philosopher Friedrich Nietzche claimed that laughter was an invention born out of despair; its creation was a mere byproduct of our suffering, spurred by a desire to forget why we suffer. 

In a way, “Joker” is based on that worldview. A man with so little to live for and nowhere to run just can’t help but laugh. Director Todd Phillips underscores the suffering behind the classic clown-faced psychopath, but “Joker” also serves as a reminder of one fundamental truth of filmmaking: a brutal, themeless psycho-thriller just isn’t entertaining.

The film follows Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a struggling, mentally ill comedian and clown. Fleck suffers from a disorder that causes him to uncontrollably laugh at unforeseen moments. As Gotham city crumbles around him, Arthur finds himself as the spiritual center of an anti-rich movement sweeping the city. While Phoenix’s performance was a masterclass in emotion and delivery, underdeveloped writing and an ambiguous message diminished his performance to the level of the plain and disturbing film with not much to say for itself. 

“Joker” attempted to root itself in a worldview that claims that class tensions will eventually culminate in a violent insurrection of the poor against the rich. While the film does stay true to that idea in the end, regurgitating it onto the silver screen isn’t particularly interesting.

The film attempts to address mental health and gun control, as Fleck’s revolver is given to him by one of his clown buddies and is present throughout the film. However, the problem of giving a mentally ill person a gun is given so little attention in the film that it is difficult to discern what the movie is trying to say about it.

The film was extremely violent, and, at certain points, it even reached the point of becoming truly unpleasant to watch. However, “Game of Thrones” has shown that excessive beheading and mortality can still produce high-quality entertainment. The difference? I was not invested enough in the themeless, slow-moving “Joker” to have a reason to put up with how disturbing it was and consequently just wanted to leave.

A movie can be “good” without being entertaining. Plenty of depressing and slow-moving films are heralded as some of the greatest in history. However, there’s more to “Joker”’s problems than just entertainment value. Phillips doesn’t seem to know which world issues to comment on and displays an almost irresponsible portrait of serious societal controversies such as gun control and mental health.

The Joker is a classic villain of the Batman universe, dating back to the first comic of the series: Batman #1 published in 1940. The Joker has been portrayed by many actors, from the Oscar-winning Heath Ledger in “The Dark Night” (2008), to whatever Jared Leto was trying to pull in the 2016 sorry excuse for a movie, “Suicide Squad.”

The Joker has always been Batman’s arch-nemesis, mostly because he represents exactly what Batman cannot comprehend. The Joker is always a step, two skips and a solid jump ahead of Batman, or his alter-ego Bruce Wayne, with his evil dealings. “Joker” is the first film granting the villain center stage, an honor I believe is long overdue. Unfortunately, this version did not pan out to be the beautiful origin story that this crazy clown deserved. 

The perfect villain that we all know and love was always most interesting because he was unmotivated. To quote Alfred from “The Dark Night,” “Some men just want to watch the world burn.” However, this edition of the Joker introduced a boring side that found him often explaining his motives in long monologues, with the film’s climax dried up by an overdone villain speech of Fleck’s grievances. Usually, films fall short because their principal character lacks motivation, but this movie made the Joker’s far too obvious. 

The bottom line is that, without Batman, the Joker simply isn’t as interesting. The Joker is the incomprehensible vigilante that serves as the perfect enemy to Batman: the criminologist fighter who searches for justice. This film places the Joker in a vacuum devoid of his principal enemy and loses the connection that made the killer clown who he was: an aimless psychopath who wants you to know how he got those scars.