JOKER – A tad derivative and fairly predictable

Review of “Joker” 2019

After seeing Joker, director/writer Todd Philips’ controversial take on the arch criminal’s backstory (co-written by Scott Silver), my observation is that it’s a tad derivative and fairly predictable.

It borrows liberally from several classic 1970s and early 1980s films (some might say it pays homage) including Taxi Driver, King of Comedy, Dog Day Afternoon, The French Connection) while purporting to create a “brand new’ origin tale.  I’m just not sure the story fits the character, or vice versa.

As depicted in this Gotham City-set Joker (which more clearly resembles New York City than any previous incarnation), Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is clearly a misbegotten individual, working as a clown and laboring under the delusion that he has a future as a stand-up comic. Arthur lives in semi-squalor with his mother Penny and he has some burning desires; one is to confront millionaire Thomas Wayne (father of Bruce Wayne) and be recognized as Wayne’s son (a lesson to be learned here about reading someone else’s mail). The other is to appear on a live late-night talk show hosted by his comedy idol Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro, some thirty-seven years since he played a dangerous, aspiring would-be King of Comedy).

There is no happiness in this Joker’s existence: Arthur’s precarious mental health is not helped by financial cuts to the programs and medications that might assist him (although those in place don’t seem to be helping very much); his comedy brings no one any joy—except certain people who exploit his obvious shortcomings; he is persecuted and pummeled while in his clown suit; perhaps worst of all, Arthur feels he is invisible.

All that changes after one beating too many as Arthur, clad in his clown suit in a subway car, shoots three drunk, taunting, predatory businessmen—all of whom incidentally are employees of Wayne Enterprises. The subsequent events turn the Joker into a symbol (shades of Bernie Goetz), a rallying point for the downtrodden fed up with crime and at odds with the establishment—and those who are wholeheartedly committed to anarchy.  Though the creative team here aims to be provocative and has much that it would like to say about all kinds of weighty social and cultural matters, the results are less than the sum of its parts. Phoenix’ Joker is a fairly entertaining bag of tics (complete with involuntary maniacal laugh), but it’s hard to believe this tormented, hapless, delusional, abused victim of society could evolve into the psychotic master of crime we all know and “love.” (Maybe he later attended archvillain school.) And much about Joker is too darn unsurprising (if you’re paying attention), from his relationship with his mother and his neighbor, to his showdown with Mr.Wayne, and finally his fateful appearance on the Murray Franklin Show. If you don’t know how that guest shot turns out, then you just don’t know your Joker.