This past week, my friend and I tuned in to the so-called ‘movie event of the year’. Joker has topped the box office these past two weeks, perhaps the most divisive feature to hit cinemas in 2019. Joaquin Phoenix, the great character actor, has been generating Oscar buzz after his tour de force performance. At the same time, Joker is also notable for having a fair share of negative reviews, with critics agreeing that the production is repetitive, tedious, and misses the point. Personally, Joker is tense, foreboding but always entertaining, a black comedy that hits the mark. An origin story that delivers, Joker, as I pointed out to my friend, also has the right running time. At just over two hours, the film packs a lot while holding your attention span.
Phoenix’s turn as the unbalanced, misunderstood, and murderous clown, was a joy to watch. We follow him as he evolves from an unassuming mama’s boy who is picked on even as he is just doing his job. From the start, his peculiarity is on notice. Let’s just say that he does things differently, that he is wired differently. He hides his face behind white paint and colourful makeup. He even belts out some bad dance moves. Like thousands of others, he takes the crowded public transport to move around. When he tries to bring joy to the world, he is told not to bother their kid. He has little friends, mostly his two co-workers – one of which gives him a gun to protect himself. He watches talk shows, always holding on to hope that one day he’ll get the chance. In particular, he is obsessed with Murray Franklin (De Niro). For the role of Arthur, Joaquin shed an astounding 52 pounds. My friend mentioned that he had to make extreme sacrifices, just so he could sustain the massive weight loss. To drive home my point, I remember an erstwhile colleague remarking that when you cannot reconcile at all the character with the actor, then that’s when you know that they will probably take home the Oscar. This is one such instance.
In Joker, we get reintroduced to Gotham City and Arkham Hospital. My friend said that he liked the retro WB logo that opened the film, which is set in the early 80s. We get to know more of Penny Fleck, Arthur’s mother, and the powerful and well-connected Waynes. We are witness to Arthur’s transformation from doormat to cold-blooded killer. My friend commented that as the movie went on, he became more adept at killing. I chimed in, observing that Arthur was damn proficient with the gun even without any practice sessions. ‘The third guy from the subway was five metres away,’ I told him. ‘The training bit is quite common in movies. It’s become a cliché,’ he said. My pal also believes that Joaquin was an even better Joker than the late Heath Ledger. Phoenix does a superb job in traversing the two sides of the coin: Arthur Fleck and Joker. The inner struggles and turmoil was enrapturing. Juggling the two personas was marvellous, as was Arthur’s slow descent into his alter ego.
Surreal with lighter moments
The movie seemed surreal at times, especially the imagined relationship between Arthur and Sophie. Viewers would easily be tricked that the love story is real. There are also a few occasions when Fleck sees himself among the studio audience, if not on the hot seat, of shows. Throughout the film, Arthur holds onto a ‘joke book’ filled with his own brand of spoofs. Fleck admitted that all the clown act was a front, and that he’s ‘never been happy for a single minute in his life.’ Though the movie can be sad, it has some lighter moments. For instance, he kills Randall with a pocket knife, while sparing the diminutive Gary. The latter is terrified of Fleck. Alas, he couldn’t even reach the door chain. There is also a hilarious punch-out scene when Arthur gets his things from his locker after being let go. While reviewing his mother’s medical file, we see Arthur wedging himself in her memories. Much is revealed at the end and we understand why Arthur is as he is.
Joker isn’t just about family, but also of social issues. The riots that spread in Gotham were as much a result of the Joker as of class differences. The Joker became the beacon of hope for all the oppressed. People were wearing clown masks and gave cover as the five-ohs were pursuing him on the subway. Even with one casualty during the chase, Arthur remains unperturbed. The scenes in the Joker was reminiscent of the current stand-off in Hong Kong. My friend asked me if I am pro-HK. I told him that we should be concerned, even though it’s not in our backyard. We should always be informed and must keep an eye out. My buddy said this reminded him of Logan, although he liked that one better. I must say that I beg to differ: this was a much more well-rounded outing. Among this year’s crop, Joker is similar to Aquaman in terms of being an origin story. The picture has already won the prestigious Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. My chum stated that he was surprised of director Todd Phillips for this drama-heavy output. Comedy films has been his cup of tea, a body of work that includes The Hangover, Road Trip, and Venom. ‘I’m not sure of being the movie of the year,’ my friend claimed, ‘but it’s a very good movie’.