For Skai Film's a dessert. Cinephilia & Quirky scribs since '97. Jotting what's Seen Through 2 lenses of his Specs. Possessive of '5Star'
'Life is a tragedy to those who feel and a comedy to those who think'
'Comedy is simply a funny way of being serious'
There's no simple way of conversing about Todd Phillips' latest interpretation of the "Clown Prince of crime's" origin story. The above two quotes, however, supplement handsomely with compressing it to a gist. But, the more pressing reason that I chose to begin with them is that they come from two of the world's greatest performing artists(let's keep that in mind, shall we?...).
This film is as fascinating, complex and problematic as 'The Joker' himself!
As such it's important to get a few things off our track before we begin -
It's an excellent example of a movie whose tempo & tonality get's absolutely ruined by the intermission (but that's just for the Indian audiences, perhaps).
This film is very visual(yes, this review's gonna be filled with gifs!) and non-subtle(much like the Joker himself). It's a beautiful piece of art but is mostly derivative. Also, it's a 'work of fiction' about a work of fiction(so let's not get too real about it).
It's not just an origin story but a character study, both - internal & external, of both the 'central character' & the 'character of the society' that he lives within.
This may not be as irresponsible a film as one might presume(let's still keep a note of the fact that it's set in 1981. We'll ponder upon this later). Although, our interpretations of it might be.
The Joker is the greatest comic book supervillain of all-time in almost every ranking ever made. This film is about the same guy - He is a villain, that's already an established fact - the film's aware of it and so should be you!
All the Warner Bros. movies begin with a movie-theme customized 'WB' logo. This film just uses the famous logo back from the 70s-80s era (The '72 logo) as the film J-cuts to the opening shot. The time chosen as for the film's setting is apt not only because this will create a gap of about 4 decades between the events of this film and the new 'Batman' film but also because of the thematic and contemporary aspects of the story gelling well with it. The most significant reason, however, is that Phillips' vision is derived from Scorcese movies ('Taxi Driver' & 'The King of Comedy' etc.) made during that time. This is the biggest flaw with the filmmaking here.
The film is phenomenal - sound editing, production design, cinematography, costumes, and the performances are on point but the final product is not the directorial piece that should've had Todd Phillips signature texture rather it comes off as a collection of a lot of devices/tricks used in the movies that it tries to draw inspiration from(Lack of authenticity).
This is not too big of a flaw but the reason it comes across so prominently is that the direction is the backbone of a film. However, this choice works out beautifully in the long run because firstly it etches out this supervillain as an Antihero(creating a complex, multi-shaded character) and secondly, it lends the film its visual grammar that lags even if it does only because of the digital projection that takes away the grainy texture that the camera needs here(the strongest aspect of this film, only second to a stellar performance by Joaquin Phoenix). Nonetheless, Todd Phillips deserves all the applause especially for mounting this film which is so very different from his previous works like Borat, Hangover, etc. (except some typicalities and a comedy connection). Although one could see a gradual growth towards this direction ever since his last directorial - 'War Dogs'.
I saw Joaquin Phoenix for the first time as 'Commodus' in the 2000 academy award stunner 'Gladiator' and I could immediately hate the character but here the film and the actor make you kind of lowkey root for 'The Joker' and that's why at last, this film succeeds(also the times have changed since 2000)!
The title character(Protagonist!) and his portrayal by Phoenix are at the crux of this film and both are equally fascinating & powerful. Arthur and his life, in fact, symbolize the very city that he lives in. Just like Gotham, he too is suffering from a disturbing condition and yet is forced to keep up a 'Happy' face and carry on. The 'garbage epidemic' that gets established early on in the film is a device to portray this aspect. However, this characterization is also a derivative of the Scorcese works that this film is restructured after (His mental condition - Travis Bickle & his career and life - Rupert Pupkin). The difference is that while Travis & Rupert eventually do get back to their normal ways, there is no retribution in Arthur's story.
De-Niro was a reactant in those movies. Here, he's sort of a cinematic catalyst!
The evident parallels..
But aren't you supposed to be funny to be a comedian...
In a scene, Arthur tells his mother that he's not been happy for even a single moment in his life..and yet his mother calls him - 'HAPPY'!
The way his relationship with his mother and the illusion-of-a-girlfriend is portrayed is an interesting take too. There is a lot of subtexts if you choose to look but it's in all the uncomfortable places. There are multiple hues of grey and we can sense that something's not right. The direction shines in the moments where Arthur is indoors, especially at night.
We get introduced to a Pseudobulbar effect like condition that forces Arthur to laugh involuntarily(even before he's transformed into the pale-skinned Genocidal Jester this laughter is what starts us making uncomfortable around Arthur). This is exactly how this film uses the device of comedy & laughter as props (even the whole idea of standup comedy & talk shows). The humor here is all jumpy & dodgy here, almost chaotic - The accidental gunshot that Arthur fires while dancing in his living room, his laughter breakdown in the subway, and the eventual killing spree...it all gets established very early on in the film. In fact, the subway murder is actually a condensed version of what happens in the film. Post this point we know that catastrophe is about to strike, we just will have to wait till the end. This scene dexterously uses lighting and sound to build up tension and fear. The same goes for the shootout at the talk show (both the shootouts are pivotal in Arthur's journey to madness). This is how the film makes sure that even when we feel some empathy for Arthur as humans, we stay largely at distance from him as an audience thus maintaining the unpredictability & terror within the character.
This film is always aware that it's portraying a dysfunctional character and a rotten society yet it chooses to stick to its preferential tone because it intends to establish 'The Joker' as an antihero. However, it should not be ignored that it still manages to maintain an apt balance - take for example the scene, where Thomas Wayne tells Arthur about his true parentage. We find out that Arthur, his mother and the society shown in the film are delusional and this gets further re-affirmed when he visits Arkham. This is the film's way of telling us that we shouldn't fall for the same illusions too. It was especially peculiar for me how my fellow movie watchers could resonate with the anarchist sentiment of the film because I can understand that the western audiences have matured while watching films like - 'Modern Times', 'Taxi Driver' etc. but unlike them, we had our first point of contact/reference with a 'joker' character through Raj Kapoor's 'Mera Naam Joker' (1970) and it's unusual and saddening how are audiences have turned out to be since then because that film was also about a poor man but had a very different politics, take and feeling to it.
This is also the stage where the writing of the film gets evidently sluggish. The whole subplot about Thomas Wayne being Arthur's father gets dejected as a delusion but that was already established through his understanding of his dynamic with Sophie(played by a subtle Zazie Beetz). This subplot as such serves only as a medium to establish a physical connection between the 'Clown & The Bat'(it does add up to the drama though!) just to serve the comic book fans with a high('Close encounter of the Dark kind') especially when the final act & climax of the film etch out a thematic connection between 'Arthur & Bruce' beautifully.
The core theme to tap into here, for the audience is not 'Morality' but 'Empathy'. Arthur's actions are unquestionably disturbing and his method can not be justified either, but his current state is definitely an outcome of his society's apathy towards people like him(his therapy & medication getting shut, him getting abused by his adoptive parents) - Murray Franklin calling Arthur a 'joker' & Thomas Wayne calling the common folk of Gotham as 'clowns'. TAKEAWAY HERE IS 'EMPATHY'!
The climax of the film is the high point because this is where it actually tries to redeem itself of its narrative tone and also because this is where the tempo of the screenplay turns into that of a typical 'comic book'-movie.
Gotham here faces a 'Purge-like' situation. One of the reasons why Todd Phillips may have chosen Scorcese films as his inspiration for this movie can be that those films chose New York as their backdrop and Gotham is an exaggerated, rotten version of NYC (interestingly enough, Scorcese recently called out the MCU movies for being more like theme parks and less like cinema!). This is where the film says that the world that it's showing, the characters that it's portraying are whacked up and should not be idolized or taken as examples because clearly these are the things that have brought Gotham to the verge of mayhem.
But the film also gives us a final lesson in empathy - While the joker puts on his signature smile with his blood, a young Bruce Wayne stands weeping in a dark alley with the bloodied body of his dead parents. Both of them, are products of this society's apathy to a young man with psychological problems and that to an innocent boy.
In its epilogue, the film shows Arthur murdering her therapist at Arkham Asylum and getting chased by the security forces. As he jumps and prollies across the screen, the words 'The End' fade-in to the screen in a calligraphic style resembling the one from the movies of the '50s & '60s. This was more in sync with the "That's all folks!" phrase at the end of another of Warner Bros.' creations - 'Looney' Toons (the 'looney' and 'the end' serve as puns here) - while earlier through Chaplin's medium, the film warned us against the traps of disillusionment & misinterpretation, this time it just tells us to not take any of it too seriously!
" Because the only stars that 'The Joker' deserves are the 'Shurikens' that the Batman shoots at him or the Glitteratti that Harley showers upon him! ".
- Sarthak Awasthi
"Through the 2 lenses of my spectacles"
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