Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is a mentally ill for-hire-clown attempting to become a stand-up comic. At night he cares for his elderly mother. He lives in Gotham City (no relation to any Gotham City you may have heard of) which is falling apart, with garbage in the streets, rats running rampant, and crime rising. Arthur is attacked multiple times, loses his job, his identity, and is insulted by TV personality Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro). He loses what little he had, pushing him to find a new identity for himself, and to find hope in the form of homicidal mania.
In this sequel to Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy…
What? It’s not a sequel?
OK, in this remake of The King of Comedy…
Really? Not a remake.
One more time. In this theft of Scorsese’s The King of Comedy, combined with chunks stolen from Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, director Tod Phillips effectively conveys the grim reality of the poor in America, and the hopelessness of their lives in the present system. Phoenix is solid, believable as a man whose minor connection to sanity is being torn away. I could feel Arthur’s pain, frustration, loss, and longing. Yes, this is Taxi Driver filtered through The King of Comedy, but that’s good material. The building strain between the social classes is clearly displayed. This is a film with a message, one that is front and center at all times, but somehow didn’t feel obnoxious to me.
And the connection to the Batman world works. This is not the Joker from the comics or TV or other films. It isn’t a new interpretation. It is a different character, just as this is a different Gotham and a different Thomas and Bruce Wayne. But that connection helps to throw some light on this world. I know those other Waynes—rich, powerful, and privileged—so show me only a second of Thomas’s arrogance and lack of empathy, and I have a complete picture of who and what he is. Joker’s world, the world of this film which is not the world of the comics, becomes full and complex.
So, for a rip-off cash grab, Joker isn’t bad. It’s actually surprisingly—shockingly—good. So much of it works. There are some emotional moments that hit hard, and here and there a shot that should become iconic.
But Tod Phillips is not Martin Scorsese. Phillips is the man behind Starsky & Hutch: The Movie and the excruciatingly unfunny School For Scoundrels. He doesn’t understand how to use color in a drama ( for God’s sake, the world is not teal). He has no idea how to edit a serious film. And he didn’t get the help he needed behind the camera as he brought along his cinematographer and editor from his previous projects, so we’re talking The Hangover Part III quality. They are out of their league. Over and over I could see how a scene would work better if the camera was shifted over, the lights were brightened, or a second was trimmed. Much of the dialog needed to be punched up. And the entire climactic talk show scene needed to be rewritten and shortened—this is a visual medium; everything doesn’t have to be explained in a speech. This is a good film, that could have been a great one if it had a few better filmmakers involved. Hey, you know who they should have called? Martin Scorsese. I bet he would have done a great job.