Directed by: Todd Phillips
Written by: Todd Phillips and Scott Silver
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen, Bill Camp, Shea Whigham, Marc Maron, Robert De Niro
Why should you be blue
When you’ve your little finger?
Prove how just a little finger
Can change the world
-Stephen Sondheim, Assassins
John Wilkes Booth beautifully sings those lines during “The Gun Song,” a catchy little number from Sondheim’s musical featuring successful or would-be assassins of US presidents. It is in this consortium of loners and lunatics that Arthur Fleck, the protagonist of Todd Phillips’ Joker, would find good company.
Fleck, played by a ghastlily thin Joaquin Phoenix, is desperate to be recognized. The tangible approval of others is his life’s greatest goal. Whether it’s being noticed by his hero Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), winning the affections of the pretty single mother who lives on his apartment floor, Sophie Drummond (Zazie Beetz), caring for his mentally ill mother Penny (Frances Conroy), or making others laugh during stand-up comedy, all of Fleck’s dreams revolve around his feeling the warmth of someone else’s love and respect. He comes by it honestly: Penny too dreams of winning the love of Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen).
But Fleck’s need for approval isn’t simply a personality flaw: it’s his reason for being. He isn’t like Jack Nicholson’s Joker, a hammy gangster who dreams of building a criminal empire, or Heath Ledger’s Joker, a nihilistic mass murderer hellbent on upsetting the established order. He’s simply a desperate man who will go at any length to feel the affection he knows he deserves. He just needs to find the right way to get it. The opening sequence, which begins with Fleck applying clown makeup and ends with him being beaten in his clown costume, contextualizes what Fleck’s need for approval really is: a time bomb.
Joker is a grimy, filthy film, Not just aesthetically, featuring a Gotham City that has never looked less desirable, but thematically. There have certainly been comic book films that have been more violent, or featured more nudity, or more cursing. But few have had a main character with as ugly a heart as Arthur Fleck. This ugliness is brought to life thanks to Joaquin Phoenix’s performance. He gives Fleck an awkward physicality, odd verbal tics that occasionally lapse into slurring, and a laugh that is painful to both hear and witness. You would be tempted to feel sorry for him, were he not so consumed with self-pity. Special mention should also be given to Phoenix’s co-stars: Conroy takes an otherwise flat character and makes Fleck’s need to care for her feel tangible. It’s not always clear how much of her affection for Wayne is genuine versus delusion, but the softness of her voice makes us feel for her the same. Ditto Beetz, who, with a smile and laugh, can make anyone’s heart melt. While we’re filtered through Fleck’s one-dimensional image of her, that image is an enchanting one.
However, whatever other strengths it has, Joker’s biggest problems come from the screenplay. Phillips and Silver’s dialogue is often too on the nose, with the climactic scene being especially egregious. It’s enough to detract from scenes that are otherwise intended to be powerful or shocking. And while it is arguably by design, the one-dimensional nature of the female characters is a flaw. Beetz’s character suffers particularly badly in this regard, serving as little more than the object of Fleck’s affections. While this film is mostly from Fleck’s perspective, and would explain the shallowness of her character, it doesn’t give Sophie much in the way of purpose.
But Phillips’ strengths as a director win out over his weaknesses as a writer in the end. A palpable sense of dread builds throughout the runtime of Joker, a countdown to an inevitably awful outcome. Combined with the beautiful cinematography and Hildur Guðnadóttir’s haunting score, Phillips manages to lift Joker above the weaknesses of its screenplay. And shows how far one man pulling his little finger can change the world