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Overall Rating

Awesome: 20%
Worth A Look: 5.71%
Just Average: 8.57%
Pretty Crappy40%
Sucks: 25.71%

3 reviews, 17 user ratings

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by Peter Sobczynski

"I Have Given A Name To My Pain And It Is Todd Phillips."
1 stars

To get right to the point, the answer is no, I do not think that “Joker,” Todd Phillips’s super-dark and brutal take on the most iconic villain of the “Batman” universe, is going to serve as a rallying call for incels and other aggrieved young men to take the character’s psychotic form of anarchy to heart and violently rise up against a society that they feel has disregarded them, especially a female population that won’t just sleep with them at the drop of a hat. For a movie to accomplish something along those lines, it would need to contain, for lack of a better term, a philosophy—some kind of train of thought that those viewers could latch onto and bring cohesion to the insidious thoughts already percolating in their minds. On that basis, “Joker” is not at all the threat that some have perceived it to be, often sight unseen, because, quite frankly, it is too fucking stupid to suggest, let alone sustain, anything that might be considered a philosophy in even the loosest definition of the word. In actuality, “Joker” is a film that is about as threatening as a T-shirt that a 13-year-old kid might buy at Spenser’s Gifts in order to shock the fuddy-duddies of the world with its highly commodified brand of chaos. And like one of those shirts, it is likely that once the easily shockable people have had their buttons pushed in the most superficial manner imaginable, people will realize just how threadbare it really is and toss it into the back of the vast cultural closet where it belongs.

Set in a bleak vision of Gotham City meant to suggest Manhattan in the early 80s—garbage on the streets thanks to a trash strike and on the screens via a screening of “Zorro the Gay Blade”—the film focuses on Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a guy who works as a clown to hawk store sales or entertain sick kids in hospital wards and who natures dreams of one day becoming a successful stand-up comedian. With his haunted look, emaciated form, obvious mental issues that are only barely being kept at bay by meds and visits to a less-than-helpful counselor and a habit of bursting out into maniacal laughter in virtually any situation, no matter how inappropriate (the result of an alleged medical condition), it is perhaps no surprise that he is not especially successful at these endeavors—even Pennywise managed to demonstrate a certain sense of humor amidst all the kid munching—but no, it seems that society as a whole has it in for people like him. While people like billionaire and possible mayoral candidate Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) sit in their ivory towers and look down upon anyone who isn’t part of their rarefied class, Arthur is stuck living in a run-down apartment with his not-quite-there mother (Frances Conroy) while getting mugged on the job by a group of punk kids with an evident anti-clown agenda. Things finally come to a head one night when he is fired from the clown job for what he feels are unjust reasons—all he did was bring a loaded gun while entertaining another group of sick kids—and then attacked by three drunk Yuppie scum on the subway until he pulls out his gun and shoots them all dead.

Arthur manages to escape from the crime scene and when reports of a killer clown sweep the city and people protesting Gotham’s income inequality begin donning clown makeup and masks themselves when Wayne dismisses them in an interview as “clowns,” he starts to feel noticed for possibly the first time in his life. He even musters up the courage to take to the stage with his stand-up act and begins a tentative romance with his neighbor (Zasie Beetz). Needless to say, the good times don’t last—the city cuts off funding for social services, leaving him without a way of getting his meds, a couple of cops show up asking questions about the subway murders and there are certain startling revelations to be made about his relationship with his mother and the romance with the neighbor. When talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro) broadcasts tape of Arthur’s stand-up routine, which was not quite as successful as he remembered, and then invites him to appear on the show, presumably to humiliate him even further, Arthur is finally pushed past the breaking point and makes the final leap to becoming the homicidal harlequin of lore.

The very notion of making a film charting the origin of Joker is in itself kind of stupid. While I am not one of those fanboys who think that everything has to adhere to what was in the comics, one of the things that was so striking was that he had no fixed origin—his beginnings would change numerous times over the years and “The Dark Knight” played with this by having its version of the character offer up several different versions of how he came to be. This made him a live wire to be reckoned with precisely because there was no way to explain why he did what he did—he was just pure chaos in a goofball suit. If you are going to make an entire film that tries to explain Joker and the circumstances that made him what he is, you had better have a pretty damn compelling narrative and director Todd Phillips and co-writer Scott Silver pretty much drop the ball right from the start and never recover it. They clearly sympathize with their central character but instead of conveying that to viewers in a way that allows them to relate to him on some basic human level while at the same time fully recognizing the gravity of his actions, they have elected to offer up the laziest takes imaginable instead. In order to inspire audience empathy, they make Arthur a constant victim of virtually everything the world has to offer—petty much everyone he encounters in his life mistreats him in some fashion—and when he does finally go around the bend and begin killing people, his victims are almost entirely people who thoroughly deserve it and the scenes are staged in a way to make him seem almost heroic. (There are one, maybe two, points in which he kills people who have not done him any harm but since Phillips clearly doesn’t want viewers to come away possibly thinking ill of Arthur, those murders are kept off-screen.) If the actual Joker were somehow given the opportunity to make a movie about his life and misdeeds, it is hard to imagine that he could come up with something as shamelessly self-serving as this.

As it turns out, the most shocking thing about “Joker” is just how thin the whole thing is once you strip away the grim visuals from cinematographer Lawrence Sher and the equally oppressive score by Hildur Guonadottir—the two seem to be having a personal contest to see whose contributions can be more pretentiously gloomy—that have been slathered on in a desperate attempt to give it the feel of something weighty and important. (The film is so oppressive in this sense that it makes the Christopher Nolan “Batman” films feel like the original “Superman” by comparison.) Although the film seems at times as if it is meant to be taken as a comment on our current times—it does, after all, contain a fatuous Gotham billionaire (a Gotham with its very own “Wall Street,” apparently) with political ambitions and a rising tide of oppressed people taking to the streets to protest income inequality—but it is ultimately too muddled and wishy-washy to actually say anything about them. (At a couple of points, it even goes out of its way to have Joker explain that his actions are not political in any way, once again justifying all his actions by claiming that society made him do it all.) The only thing that really stands out when all is said and done is the crazy number of other and generally better films that Phillips and Silver have ransacked whole sequences from and jammed together into their jerry-rigged narrative. Although Batman himself never appears in the film, there are, perhaps not surprisingly, any number of elements that can be traced back to previous films involving the character, ranging from Joker staring out of the window of a moving car a la Heath Ledger in “The Dark Knight” to a shot of a young Bruce Wayne sliding down a pole as the adult version of him did in the old TV show. Beyond that, the film cribs shamelessly from the Martin Scorsese classics “Taxi Driver” and “The King of Comedy” and eventually morphs into a riff on the equally notorious “Fight Club.” By borrowing from those films so blatantly, “Joker” is clearly hoping to be considered alongside them but it becomes painfully clear that while Phillips has seen those films, he clearly did not get them. Those movies depicted violent and anti-social behavior but, despite the wrong-headed criticisms from those who confuse depiction with endorsement, they did not celebrate the actions of their anti-heroes. “Joker,” on the other hand, is exactly the kind of film that one might expect to get from someone who never managed to figure any of that out.

Besides Phillips’s utter incompetence with the material, the only other thing about “Joker” worth noting is the performance by Joaquin Phoenix in the title role, a turn that somehow manages to be both the best thing about the film as well as one of its most helplessly misguided elements. Phoenix is, of course, one of the most gifted actors around and he has clearly thrown himself fully into this part—from the intensity of the performance to the gaunt physique that he displays throughout, he is clearly not coasting through role in the way that some top actors do when portraying comic book characters. After spending just a little bit of time with him—and he is on the screen virtually non-stop—however, that intensity proves to be just as empty as everything else on display. It is a good performance but a shallow one that never gets beneath the surface of the character—the kind that might have worked in one of the Nolan Batman films but feels at odds in a film that is supposed to takes us deep into the Joker to find out what makes him tick. And like “Joker” as a whole, it eventually feels like a performance made up of bits and pieces cribbed from his previous turns in films like “The Master” and “You Were Never Really Here.” Perhaps realizing that no one was going to notice their efforts anyway, the majority of the rest of the cast have toned down their performances to point where they hardly register. The only one who does stand out besides Phoenix is De Niro, who is essentially playing the Jerry Lewis role from “The King of Comedy” but that whole aspect to the film is so flimsily constructed that one of the only real surprises to be had is that it is not supposed to be just another delusion.

I have often complained that most movies inspired by superhero comic books tend to tell the same kind of story over and over and wished that filmmakers would try to do something different with the format. In fact, some of my favorite examples of the genre, such as the Nolan films and Ang Lee’s audacious take on “Hulk,” were one that did exactly that. “Joker” is certainly different from practically any other film of its type that I can recall but in this case, “different” does not equal “good” or even “competent.” This is a depressing, ugly and brutally violent (and just in case there was any lingering doubts, this is not one for the kiddies, though that didn’t stop people from bringing young ones to the screening I attended) exercise in cut-rate misanthropy that is far more tedious than it is threatening. While the absurdly hyped-up controversy surrounding the film (which has been recently fanned by a number of eyebrow-raising quotes from Phillips hat have more than a touch of desperation to them) will no doubt cause it to become a hit at the box office in the short run, the Nihilism For Dummies take that it employs throughout will not serve it well in the long run and I suspect that if it stands the test of time, it will be more as an inadvertent camp classic than anything else. (Somewhere out there, someone is already penning a think piece highlighting the parallels between this film and “The Room.”) Put it this way—if you see only one movie this weekend featuring an anguished clown trying to navigate his way through a city on the edge of collapse that seems determined to thwart him at every turn until he turns into a criminal, make it a rental of “Quick Change” and leave this nonsense aside.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=32703&reviewer=389
originally posted: 10/03/19 11:11:30
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2019 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

6/27/20 morris campbell great acting thats about it 3 stars
5/14/20 Jack Sommersby The most childishly nihilistic crock since "Fight Club." 1 stars
3/16/20 FUKA TOYOKAWA The actor (Phoenix) performed well, but the deep plot of the pretense was boring. 2 stars
2/07/20 Herald of God Emperor Donald Trump is winning. Peter Sobczynski is crying. 5 stars
1/30/20 Jules McGools One of the most powerful films I’ve seen. I couldn’t stop thinking about it for days 5 stars
1/26/20 Jumbling Jay This movie is spell-binding superb! Phoenix deserves an Oscar 5 stars
1/20/20 Langano Decent film but Phoenix's performance is the reason to watch. 3 stars
12/20/19 BERNARD Scary great. 4 stars
10/17/19 Louise (the real one) Why the hate? A well-made film with a message. Phoenix is excellent. 5 stars
10/13/19 Bob Dog Training film for future psychopaths (Hint: they clap at the end). 1 stars
10/11/19 Gary Anderson “ A modern masterpiece a performance art and technical film craft 4 stars
10/06/19 Ham Bergler I have an incel role model! Next to Hulk Hogan. 3 stars
10/06/19 Action movie fan The years most overrated movie 2 stars
10/05/19 Jack One of the worst movies I have seen in at least 10 years. 1 stars
10/04/19 David Green Simply brilliant. Joachim amazing 5 stars
10/04/19 Go see this movie— don't bring kids! A+ Half drama, half cautionary tale.This movie's great— Peter Sobczynski is full of shit! 5 stars
10/03/19 Bob Dog An astonishing masterwork of the highest calibre and quality, quite incredible. 5 stars
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  04-Oct-2019 (R)
  DVD: 07-Jan-2020


  DVD: 07-Jan-2020

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