Updated: Dec 20, 2019
A Review By Benny Lindo
GET TO THE POINT BEN!
Without Batman, it doesn’t hold up as strongly as it needs to. Sadly, I think this will come and go. But yes, I enjoyed it.
"A Long time ago, I was in Burma. My friends & I were working for the local government. They were trying to buy the loyalty of tribal leaders by bribing them with precious stones. But their caravans were being raided in a forest, not from Rangoon, by a bandit. So we went looking for the stones. But in six months, we never met anyone who traded with him. One day, I saw a child playing with a ruby the size of a tangerine. The bandit had been throwing them away. So, why steal them? Well maybe because he thought it was good sport? Maybe because, some men aren’t looking for anything logical like money. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with ... Some men … just want to watch the world burn.” -Christopher & Jonathan Nolan
What would that look like? That person’s beginning, their decent into madness? Watching the moments come together, root for them to succeed, and knowing the outcome, feeling sad, and maybe even a little awe struck as they become the nefarious villain you witnessed your hero battle all throughout your childhood. Director Todd Phillips (The Hangover trilogy) takes up the diabolical origins of the infamous Joker!
Joaquin Phoenix (Gladiator, The Master, You Were Never Really Here) gives a performance that stirs up the emotions come the end and sends shivers down the spine as he becomes the clown prince of crime, packaged for an adult audience. We delve into his psyche and learn about his beginnings as a lower class, minimum wage earner in the poor neighborhoods of Gotham. I particularly loved how Phillips explains where his laugh comes from, portraying his condition and why he needs to frequently meet with a social worker. He takes care of his also mentally ill mother who yearns to get the attention of the rich and successful Thomas Wayne whom she worked for way back when while she was a young woman with a son, Arthur (Phoenix). If she can get his attention, everything will be okay.
The rest of the lower class isn’t taking poverty the same way. There’s slowly building unrest as they feel neglected and not having a proper shake in life. Fascism is now in Gotham and the rich must be held accountable. Though I was pleased to see Phillips tow this line nicely and keep this in the fantasy world of Gotham. As it could’ve easily spilled over into the everyday protests of today. So with this rising uproar, Thomas Wayne looking to run for mayor to help the lower class, Arthur, not being political in the slightest, is just looking for a kind and decent world that will take him in and he feels happy, comfortable, and safe (keeping him politically neutral was another great move in my opinion). He befriends the girl next door (Zazie Beetz, Deadpool 2), watches late night television host Murray Franklin (Robert DeNiro) religiously with his mother, as he dreams of making it big as a stand up comedian. Reminded that his mother told him he was put here “to bring joy and laughter into the world”. All while Gotham burns around him. Sparking from the death of a group of rich boys who were shot to death on a train by a man in clown make up. Thus, arising protests against the ruling elites by lower class “clowns”.
I’m happy that Phillips is reaching back towards his dramatic, artistic roots as apparently he stumbled into comedy. What a way to do that with a cynical drama and thriller about a sinister, “comedic” figure?! At first I was blown away, which is normal with anticipation. The ending brings me to tears as we see the Joker become the Joker. After multiple viewings, it still does. Especially when you know the outcome of this character, it’s the seeing it all play out in front of you that makes it so powerful. I’m getting teary again thinking about it now. But that’s the dilemma. It’s because I know this character SO MUCH. I grew up watching my hero Batman take him on week after week. He is Batman’s nemesis. His arch enemy, and is built up just as much as this hero we all know and love (yes, we can have the argument over Ra's al Ghul, the point is, Joker is DEFINITELY apart of that conversation). So if you take all that away, what are you left with? A story about a guy who goes crazy in a not so significant way. It’s the music, editing, and especially the imagery of the final scene that’s what’s so enticing. Combine that with your pre-existing knowledge of this guy, this world, these characters, and it all is pretty engaging.
Without that, people shouting outside an event with rich people inside including the Waynes, and Arthur sneaking in to confront them is a decent scene to build up a decent movie. But does it really knock it out of the ballpark? Or could you see yourself reliving the slow build up of this world and day to day life of Arthur? Will the fact that he’s the Joker keep you interested in experiencing that slow build up all over again next year when we’ve moved onto something else? Or the cops on the trail of a guy because they think he’s behind the subway murders and maybe they’re hot on his trail and you’re squirming in your seat because they could actually catch him so you move a little whenever they appear on screen? Or not and maybe that whole storyline aspect works to bring this all together come the big climax, BUT NOWHERE NEAR the level you were hoping for? So are you just excited to see little Bruce Wayne and a soon to be Joker interacting on screen and saying to yourself, “Wow! This is when they met!” Without Batman, this story just doesn’t hold up as it should.
As good as Joaquin’s performance was, I just can’t bring myself to see him becoming where he ends up with Heath Ledger’s performance in The Dark Knight (2008). In some aspects, maybe, but he becomes a criminal mastermind and overlord, always a step ahead of Batman and more importantly, other criminals to prove his dominance that make us ALL go, “man, the genius, I don’t even have the words. All I know is, I’m afraid and simultaneously in awe.” That’s more on Phillips than Phoenix. This story is supposed to be the first step in that direction of awe. My point is it was more nostalgic than intellectual fulfillment to plug the gap. And telling myself to separate the two and just take it for what it is, is disingenuous and being dishonest with myself, you know that.
It serves its purpose, it gets the job done, it gets the point across, but there is a major substance lack here that should fulfill our adulthood expectations while simultaneously surpassing our childhood dreams. The latter is the only part of this that somewhat hits the mark. If you really think about that, if you honor the work done by Joaquin Phoenix, and if you’re honest with yourself, you’ll know the answer to, “will you rave about this just as much as you did with this character a decade ago, next month or next year?”
Sadly, I think this will come and go. But yes, I enjoyed it.
Drama/Thriller, 122 Minutes, R
Based on Characters Created By: Bob Kane, Bill Finger, & Jerry Robinson
Screenplay By: Todd Phillips & Scott Silver
Directed By: Todd Phillips
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert DeNiro, Zazie Beetz