Joker Review: Put on a Happy Face
Straying far from the typically safe superhero fare, Todd Phillips’ take on Batman’s greatest nemesis is fast becoming the year’s most controversial film. Rarely does a film follow a prestigious award win with safety warnings from the US Military.
Our Director of Programme, Damian Spandley caught Joker at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, and it left him with a very happy face.
In early September, I was lucky enough to be out at the Toronto Film Festival watching movies for Curzon. 45 films in fact. And so the news came in: Todd Phillips, the director of The Hangover Part III and Road Trip has won the Golden Lion in Venice!
Within minutes it was being talked about in the film queues of the Scotiabank and Lightbox cinemas, and everyone’s either up in arms or exhilarated by it. Many times I overhear festival delegates confused as to how Lucrecia Martel (the Argentine director of the exquisite Zama, which is currently available on Curzon Home Cinema) could have presided over such a daring decision. Someone else says they know a friend who knows a friend who knows a friend of actress and jury member Stacy Martin, and they will try and find out the inside track.
A couple of days later, I’m queuing to see Joker and I’m feeling an impending weight, as if I’m carrying the high bar I’d set for it with me; this pitch black imagining of the Batman villain’s rise to power (and simultaneous fall from grace).
It didn’t disappoint, earning that big clever Venice prize with every scene. As widely discussed, instead of drawing on the look of comic books, Phillips’ Gotham is painted with a palette of New Hollywood films of the 70s that depict the US city in squalor or crisis, most notably films from Scorsese (Taxi Driver) and Sidney Lumet (Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon).
And from The King Of Comedy (1982) he steals huge chunks of story, including - deliciously - casting Robert De Niro in the original Jerry Lewis role.
Rather than being plagiaristic, Phillips has made a banoffee pie, astutely working the two ingredients together to create something that is both traditional and innovative. Scorsese’s New York is the perfect setting for the development of Joker as a traumatised and afflicted man, pressed down and ignored by society. It’s a loving pastiche of those films, meticulously recreated and even surpassed at times: the period detail, cinematography, sound and set design, and soundtrack are all technically perfect. And, although it feels like a pretty standard subtext these days, Trump’s America runs thick and gloopy throughout. Phoenix is trapped in both a health and employment system that is failing him, the Wayne family represent slick corporate America and, when there’s a public riot celebrating the killing of a group of yuppies, we see the disenfranchisement of the poor and the widening gulf between the haves and have-nots.
After Christian Bale’ing his emaciated body for the role, Phoenix delivers a high pitch-perfect performance. If Heath Ledger made Joker his own with melodrama, visual tics and one-liners, Phoenix’s performance is bravely downbeat and minimalistic. His screeches are shrill cries for help. And he uses his body to expressively visualise Joker’s mania. It’s a fascinating approach, a physical as opposed to emotional performance, mastering and reinterpreting choreographed movements to both express his role as a clown but also communicate feeling. As a result, some sequences come across as modern dance, not mainstream cinema. So it’s little explorations like this that set Phillips’ superhero movie apart, as does the attention that’s gone into every detail. There’s hardly any wastage. Even a scene in a cinema is put to use, as Chaplin’s Modern Times lights up the screen, the great performer’s movements echoing Phoenix’s acrobatic performance, but also a reference to Joker’s overriding theme of a man's struggle to exist in a frightening modern world.
Todd Philips’ Joker plays on our screens from Friday 4 October