Film Weekly

No jokes here

October 9 - 15, 2019

Gulf Weekly Naman Arora
By Naman Arora

Gulf Weekly No jokes here


Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz

Director: Todd Phillips     

Genre: Crime, Drama, Thriller

Rating: R

RUNTIME: 121 Mins


Few villains in the world have the claim to stardom that Batman’s prankster, sometimes prison, pen pal Joker does. He is the pepper to Batman’s salt. The Garfunkel to his Simon. The Blowfish to his Hootie. And I will now always think of him as Arthur Fleck.

Every Batman has been judged on how good his vilest villain is, even though every Joker is not judged on how good his spandex superhero is. Most movies with the Joker, except for the travesty formally known as Suicide Squad, have a terrific, sometimes terrifying twist. Cesar Romero in the 1966 Batman television series brought a bumbling prankster nature to the character. Jack Nicholson added his surreal twist to the character for the 1989 Batman film, with a garnish of black comedy. Mark Hamill, in the animated Batman: The Animated Series took it even further, giving the villain his iconic maniacal and malevolent laugh.

Of course, the unforgettable Heath Ledger in 2008’s The Dark Knight added a bow on top and flipped the script, where every joke started off funny and ended in a dark, desolate place, instantly becoming the benchmark for supervillain performances. Since then, the TV show Gotham and the disastrous Suicide Squad borrowed inspiration from the Ledger Joker.

But in Joker, we see an even darker yet sadder iteration, while paying homage to its predecessors. A dark, referential line pays its respects to Heath Ledger’s untimely demise before The Dark Knight was released — “I hope my death makes more cents than my life.” Joaquin Phoenix, the actor who has become renowned for playing loners with a dark side (Her, You Were Never Really Here), brings his trademark touch to the veritable villain.

The je ne sais quoi of the Joker is just how much fun he seems to be having while being thoroughly monstrous, laughing as he slaughters innocents and bringing out the very worst in his minions. Todd Phillips reimagines this as a mental disorder, which adds a tragic undercurrent to the perilous prankster. I found myself feeling sorry for the guy, even though I knew what he would end up becoming. He is a failed comedian, who works as a clown to pay the bills, while taking care of his mother, who herself suffers from numerous mental disorders.

The movie manages to shine a bright light on the deepening mental disorder pandemic society seems to be seeing. The audience pities this mentally ill loner and on-screen, like in our society, he is further isolated, bullied and ostracised. Joaquin’s Joker becomes who he is, because of completely real aggressions committed against him, making the character altogether more terrifying and bringing to mind all the ‘lone-wolf’ terrorists who have been shooting up public places in the US.

There is no laughing gas, no dive bombs into chemical tankers and no evil-born out. This is a struggling everyday man, who was abused, bullied and clobbered by macro and micro aggressions of the world around him. His condition worsens when his therapy programme’s funding is cut. He is marginalised as a clown, making him an easy target for violence. He goes from doting on his mother to committing unspeakable travesties against her.

And yet, Joaquin still keeps the origin story ambiguous enough to be darkly mysterious.

Ledger’s Joker had constantly shifting backstories, making the audience doubt his every word about it and Joaquin keeps that element in parts of the movie which tread the fine line between fantasy and reality. There is one iconic line that can help one figure out what is real and manufactured, uttered by Joker:  “Violence makes me feel like I exist.”

There are few, if any notes to be made. A few scenes felt highfalutin while others felt like pandering, but these will be enjoyed by their respective bases, as part of possibly the best movie of the year. And for that, I am going to give it a very rare five-star rating. Don’t ignore Arthur or the movie, or society might come to regret it.


Naman’s verdict: 5/5

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