‘Joker’ review: The clown prince reigns

“Joker” tries to be a lot of things: an “anti-comic book movie,” a loving tribute to the early films of Martin Scorsese, a scathing indictment on the modern world and its treatment of the disenfranchised. At its core, it attempts to be a cautionary tale about the darkness in a human’s heart and the terrible consequences of when it’s left unchecked.

Its success in being all of those things is pretty hit and miss, but what “Joker” consistently manages to be is engaging, and therefore is more than worth your time.

While the Joker is a character that traditionally has no backstory, “Joker” presents us with a what-if type scenario in which the Joker begins his life as Arthur Fleck (played triumphantly by Joaquin Phoenix), a mentally unstable, aspiring comedian living in Gotham City during the early ‘80s.

As Arthur’s personal life and the world around him begins to crumble into chaos, he descends into his fractured psyche, losing himself deeper and deeper until he becomes the famous Clown Prince of Crime.

“Joker” is not your typical comic book movie. It’s a slow, character driven story with little-to-no action in it. It couldn’t be any more different from “Avengers.”

The production design is top notch. Gotham City is uh-gly. Streets are dirty, seedy, spilling over with trash. Homeless people populate the background of most outdoor shots like tired ghosts. Everything is filmed with a washed out, beaten down color palette. It’s a consistently haunting depiction of urban decay.

The film’s biggest selling point by a million miles is Joaquin Phoenix’s performance. Phoenix is already one of the most intriguing and intense actors working today, but holy moley does he crank it up to 11 here.

Phoenix brings the complexities of Fleck to screen in a disturbingly convincing fashion. He’s sad, he’s creepy, he’s funny, he’s a monster. The scene-by-scene shifts are handled with such expertise. Despite the total unpleasantness of the character, Phoenix steals your attention every second he’s on screen.

While the lead actor may have been able to bottle Joker’s essence, the script can’t quite figure it out.

Given the current political and social climate, a film about mental illness and violence is bound to cause some sort of stir. “Joker” definitely touches on some timely topics but only in very surface level ways. Any attempts at being a socially aware film fall flat, since most are eye rollingly basic.

It wants to say too many things at once, and the messages often shout over each other. The film ends without any real condemnation of Arthur’s actions in the film.

While a member of the audience can obviously (or hopefully) understand what Arthur is doing is bad, the script never takes any internal moral stance on whether what he’s doing is ultimately wrong or somehow a justified response to a world that abandoned him.

With mental illness and gun violence being such prominent issues, this is problematic to say the least.

But if one is able to ignore any social implications that may or may not even be there, “Joker” is still worth watching. It’s most certainly an uneven and flawed film, but you’d be a real clown (I’m so sorry) if you missed this one.

mason.robert.dredge@mail.umkc.edu

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