Plot: Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) loves to make people laugh, but his own life seems to be one tragedy after another. The aspiring comedian runs into problems on stage, as his anxiety kicks in and causes him to have fits of manic laughter, which scares off the audiences, to say the least. His stand up routines bomb out, but his work as a clown doesn’t go much better, as he gives off some strange vibes and those around him tend to recoil from his antics. Unable to get the help he needs to cope with his mental illness, Arthur pushes on and after being attacked over and over, he decides to get a gun and the next time he’s jumped, he shoots the men who assaulted him. The city is abuzz after the clown mask killer, while Arthur begins to embrace a new mindset after the killings, as well as some minor media attention from a talk show host. But can Arthur keep his mind from unraveling in the midst of all this stress and if not, how will he react when he keeps getting pushed to the brink?
Entertainment Value: Joker was a massive success in terms of both box office and critical acclaim, racking up over a billion dollars in theaters and eleven Oscar nominations in the process. The narrative is tight and effective, but it is the grounded, gritty approach that helps Joker stand out, as this is a comic book tale that feels much different than the ones mass produced from Marvel. No wild super powers, no over the top CGI third act battle, instead this movie feels Scorsese influenced and packs a realism most comic book movies avoid. The film has an aged texture, but is quite relevant and touches on the fractured mental health services field, following Arthur as he is passed over and ignored. So there’s no acid vat or supernatural origins here, just a dark, unsettling journey alongside Arthur, though of course some references to Bruce Wayne are sprinkled around. But again, this is not a Batman movie at all, it centers on Joker and how he radicalized, with an emphasis on the internal mental struggles of the character, which are explored in effective fashion. The pace is on point and never feels slow, thanks in part to the manic, anything goes persona of Joker, not to mention the superb lead effort from Joaquin Phoenix. I think Joker is a well crafted take on the genre that might borrow heavily from some of its inspirations, but delivers a stylish, impactful experience that is highly recommended.
As Joker centers on a character study of sorts, taking us inside Arthur’s life and the chaos inside his mind, it takes a different kind of performance here, not the usual over the top, larger than life superhero type effort. The role seems to have been a natural one for Joaquin Phoenix, as he shines in this movie and embraces the shift in comic book tone, keeping a darker edge to his character. Some of the laughs are beyond unsettling, but never feel out of place or forced, as Phoenix embodies Arthur so well, it all feels like second nature. He does go a little wild at times, but that is a must for the character and again, the mood swings and emotional turmoil seem too real. This is especially true in a time when mental health remains stigmatized and countless people are denied the care they need or just pushed into a pharma line. I think Phoenix hits every note just right here, a memorable and powerful performance that brings Arthur to life in a fashion that makes you believe. While this is Phoenix’s show, Robert De Niro also has a prominent role and leaves a strong impression. The talk show scene between De Niro and Phoenix is a show stopper and one of the movie’s highlights. The cast also includes Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy, and Bill Camp.
The Disc: Warner Brothers released Joker with a 4k edition, a treatment that ensures all of the visual spark of the experience shines through. This film has a lot of dynamic visual touches and while there is an almost dated, gritty texture at times, that doesn’t soften detail whatsoever. So depth is impressive throughout and fine detail is remarkable, this is one razor sharp presentation. I also found colors to be well replicated, sometimes bright and vivid, other times more restrained, always holding up the intended visual design approach. The most substantial extra is Vision & Fury, just over twenty minutes of cast & crew interviews, while this release also includes costume & makeup tests, a look at the various entrances Phoenix filmed for the talk show segment, and a slideshow of still photos from the production.