Joker review: Joaquin Phoenix is “excellent” as The Clown Prince Of Crime says Ali Plumb
Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is struggling. A mentally unwell man prone to blasts of loud, maniacal laughter in social situations, he dreams of making the world smile as a successful stand-up comic appearing on a late night-style chat show.
This seems increasingly unlikely as he trudges around Gotham earning pennies as a clown for hire, spinning ‘closing down sale!’ signs outside rundown stores and attempting to amuse kids at hospitals.
Life is not good, and things are only getting worse as his social worker tells him funding has been cut for his medication. Soon, his world starts to spiral out of control and violence is knocking at the door.
Third party videos may contain adverts.
Joaquin Phoenix is phenomenal in Joker. In fact, he's every single screamer adjective in the book of poster quote clichés: "Electricifying!", "Magnetic!", "Superb!", "Astonishing!", etc. He’s been very, very good for some time now – if you’ve not seen last year’s You Were Never Really Here, may I casually recommend him in it – and yet he’s still best known for his decade-old work in Gladiator (2000) and Walk The Line (2005). Joker changes that. This may end up being his crowning performance, so don’t be surprised if he wins the Best Actor Oscar for this one. The way he inhabits the frenetic, jolting energy of ‘The Joker’ is just something else. You'll linger on his every word, movement, laugh and he tackles the utterly iconic Batman villain. In short, he's excellent.
Joker is a brave and interesting move from Warner Bros. In attempt to differentiate itself from its all-powerful and world-conquering competitors Marvel, DC Comics have rolled the dice on this R-rated standalone arthouse film, a character study about a mentally unwell man who's kicked when he's down time and time again (sometimes literally) before breaking with a series of almighty snaps. And to be absolutely clear, this film is unapologetically bleak. This is not escapism, this is not entertainment. This is brutal. This is not in the same world as Henry Cavill’s Superman or Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman: this is a Scorsese-influenced exploration of sanity and society in a world where no-one seems to care about the little guy. If you’re looking for a tone, think Taxi Driver meets King Of Comedy (only this time around, Robert De Niro is in the comedian chat show host role).
While Joker is – wait for it – undeniably crushing, powerful, ugly, hurtful, unpleasant and uncomfortable, it’s also about something: humanity, the struggle to survive, the distribution of wealth and power, mental illness, society itself, the human condition. How many “comic book movies” can you say that about? Like its lead, it feels dangerous, like a grenade with a faulty pin, but this film is about something, even if some of its messaging is clumsily delivered (see below).
This really is almost unbearably grim. Do not – I repeat, do not – bring the kids. It’s rated 15 in the UK, but it honestly felt more like an 18. You may want to invest in an XL sugary slurpie of some kind to maintain your good mood, because walking out of the cinema you’ll feel like your head has been bashed a few times. In a good way... Kind of. Joker really is such a baseball bat to the skull, I wonder if I will ever watch it again. I mean… I probably will, but not any time soon.
Joker bangs the same drum over and over again – the world is awful, no-one cares, that sort of thing – that the more nuanced stuff gets dulled along the way. And with a bit of distance, and a bit of reading around the movie, I am now feeling that the film is perhaps not quite as clever as it thinks it is. That’s a poorly made comment, and one that’s hard to explain, but once you see the movie, next time you spot me in the street, stop me and we can talk it through, because this really is one of those films worth talking about. I am already almost “talked out” about this movie and at the time of writing it hasn’t even been released yet. It’s that much of a hot button film.
With it being a character study, it feels wrong to complain of a lack of antagonist or traditional plot – it’s an awfully treated man rotting into himself before exploding with rage – so I’ll take a different tack: the hype is GIGANTIC. This film arrives with a parade of five-star reviews from the great and good of film criticism, blessed with the “Golden Lion” award from Venice Film Festival and a whole host of other plaudits from people who know about films real good. This may well actually diminish your enjoyment of the film, as the reality of the cinema-going experience fails to match your sky-high expectations. It’s good, it’s interesting, it’s different, it’s got a powerhouse performance from ‘The Joaquer’ (as I call him) but it’s not perfect.