The Joker character works extremely well as a comic book character. He works pretty well as a side piece to a larger story as the villain, but because he was such a bizarre character, it worked best in doses, without examination of the back story.
Well, Joker, out now in theaters, is that intense, dark look at the back story.
Joaquin Phoenix plays Arthur Fleck, the man behind the drawn-on smile. Fleck is a mentally ill man lost in a broken system who routinely gets kicked when he is down, literally on occasion, figuratively always.
Going in, I expected there to be more character development for a young Fleck, showing us the transformation. Instead, we enter to an already broken Fleck. They don’t show us the why.
An hour into the movie, I was ready for it to be over. I was kind of over it. We learn why we did not get the lengthy portrait of psychosis developing through a “surprise reveal”. And while it seemed like a plot ploy, it also kicks off a much stronger second half of the show.
Some of the stuff I wasn’t buying in the front half does get explained away in the second half as well. Fans of Mr. Robot will get it. But much like in the TV show, once that pin is pulled out of the grenade, it can’t go back in.
A lot of movies start slow, putting in the time on character development. I generally appreciate that. And looking back, this was doing that, just not in the way I was expecting.
The movie also borrows from Mr. Robot with the portrayal of the broken society ready to destroy the elite—the deplorables descending into chaos and giving rise to the hero/villain. And that is how you pull off an over-the-top maniac in a biopic. You present a version of reality, not reality. It is one that can be imagined, but not experienced. And then you see how far you can push the role within that version.
While the front half is disturbing, the back half is jolting. And the climax of the movie is, in fact, fantastic.
It is a movie that if not for Joaquin Phoenix’s performance, probably doesn’t work. But make no mistake, he acts his ass off in this movie, and should pile up some awards for it. This is no easy role to portray, ane especially with the coping mechanism they give the character that should have been very, very annoying to watch for two hours. But still, he nails it.
The physical transformation Phoenix undertakes for this role, ironically enough, is similar to emaciated Christian Bale for his role in The Machinist. It was that performance that landed him the role in Christopher Nolan’s Batmans.
The movie excels as an acting vehicle for Phoenix. But the lasting effect should be some reflection on the mental illness system that led to a man like Fleck existing. I don’t know how many times I would ever rewatch this one, but I am glad I saw it at least the once. It sticks with you.
Walking in, the theaters had disclaimer flyers along the lines of: this is not a typical comic book movie, do not take your children.
That’s no joke.
IAW Rating: 7/10.