Joker. The character that has existed since 1940, has become so heavy with so many different portrayals, different origins, that it feels impossible for any mortal man alive to impersonate the scattered personalities. It is an insurmountable task for any director to digest it all and still produce one more.
Todd Phillips had a crazy challenge. He brought in one of the best actors alive to lift it with him, Joaquin Phoenix. Together, they have built a mass-market masterpiece which is just above the crop. It is appropriately crazy and completely focussed on the central character. The narrator goes close to the shores of that craziness, wets his feet but remains dry to tell this story. It is like those news reporters which go closer to the burning amazon, but it is impossible to step in the fumes. In no way, Joker is telling his story. Instead, his story is told to us and there are pillars of sanity (like the detectives, asylum clerk etc.) which remain steadfast to give a strong anchor to the audience. This dilutes the effect of the film.
With the copious amount of material on Joker already, I wished to consider this film as a standalone character study vaguely inspired by the batman universe. But this is not entirely possible. I was forced to think about it on two levels. With Batman and Without Batman.
With Batman, The Joker is on the home turf. There have been many renditions of Joker, and Heath Ledger's portrayal is still vivid in my mind. I knew that Arthur here will go on to become someone who is going to say, “Introduce a little anarchy. Upset the established order, and everything becomes chaos. I'm an agent of chaos...”. When I was thinking Joker in the context of Batman, I could not keep Ledger's joker too far away. I was searching for a path for Arthur to go from the mentally unstable to the calculating anarchist. I was left searching for that path when the movie ended. To remain as the crown prince of crime, and to justify the title of the greatest adversary of Batman, just mental instability isn't good enough. He needs to be much more intelligent, much more cunning. These traits are often visible early, In the case of Arthur, I could not find that complete foundation upon which the later psyche can stand. This reminded me of Cameron Monaghan's Jerome Valeska. The joker of my understanding is somewhere between the cruelty of Jerome and pitiable delusions of Arthur. Also, the iconic Batman moment was not needed in this. I kept feeling that Joker is trying to stand with the support of Batman's tale as a clutch. A safety net enforced by the producers.
On the other hand, if I consider this movie as a standalone tale, then it was a bit more satisfying. There are tearjerker movies where nothing good ever happens with the protagonist. A series of bad lucks, or difficulties keep blocking a normal life. He is most definitely poor, has a sub-optimal family background, has a medical affliction which is unique and provides a foundation of the pity I felt. This is not very far from Rani Mukharjee's Hichki if you only consider the medical condition. Rani's Naina had Tourette syndrome while Joaquin's Arthur suffers from pseudobulbar affect. The setting and genre make the two films vastly different. More often than not, I have noticed these disorders lift a lot of burden from the narrative. In the case of Joker, couple his disorder with usually being in the wrong place at the wrong time, you have a travesty of human life. Add to that, an unstable parent, amplify it with the volatile societal conditions, you have a perfect decoction of what Joker is made of. As a tale of its own, it works. The delivery is great thanks to the spectacular performance. It also helps to increase the awareness of mental health. But when you strip off all the Batman context, it remains a well-acted and averagely written tale.
Unfortunately, this is a single film, and I felt it is torn between these two polarising treatments. It wants to find its ground, which it finds. But that ground is far from being sensational. It remains somewhat indecisive. It can not be well soaked in Batman lore like James Gordon's tale, Gotham is. I am considering Gotham because both Gotham and Joker do not feature Batman, but they both have Bruce. Gotham understands its lore and fully embraces it but Joker does not want to. At the same time, as a tale of the psychologically troubled protagonist, Joker tries to play safe with the aim to please audience en-mass. I kept thinking about American Psycho and The Machinist. (Coincidently, both star ex-Batman Christian Bale). Those two take you in the psyche of the protagonist. Those take you inside the burning Amazon and not stand at a safe distance. Joker does not aim to do so.
I am not at all qualified to talk about the acting performances. Joaquin Phoenix is in every frame and the way he waltzes between emotions is terrifyingly amazing. The Tai Chi to calm himself down, the menacing stare when finally becomes the Joker, those are chilling. He lives the character to the best of his abilities. Regrettably, he does not have the same level of writing support which Heath Ledger had and so due to no fault of his own, Joaquin could not topple Heath Ledger's portrayal of the crown prince of crime.
If I consider Todd Philips's entire resume, this was a genre shift for him. He knew very well that the biggest trump card is Joaquin Phoenix, so he takes no risk. He keeps him in focus, almost always all the setting and cinematography works for him. The only exception being Robert De Niro. Robert is allowed to carry his scenes quite independently. I think Todd Philips relied on both these giants to carry their parts. Sadly, I had gone to a theatre which had a bad print or screen so I think I will have to watch it again sometimes to enjoy the cinematography.
I realised, I kept writing a lot and this is already over a thousand words. If you are here and reading still, I must say thank you. To summarise, The Joker worked for me and I enjoyed it, but I would not consider it the best depication of the iconic villain from comic books. The best may yet come.