Movie review: Joker
Given that the film has broken the US box office record for October, this review of Joker will be another chapter of Did I Watch A Different Movie?
The praise lavished on Todd Phillips' tale of a man's mental collapse has me perplexed.
I concede that it will spawn memes, fan art, arguments and conspiracy videos for as long as there’s an Internet.
But that's down to the iconic look of the protagonist.
Any claims of it redefining comic book movies are definitely overblown.
As are fears that it will inspire riots among the weak-minded.
An opening haul of US$96 million (S$132.5m) in the US and S$1.89 million in Singapore is impressive, and part of that success is down to the compelling physicality of Joaquin Phoenix's performance.
As Arthur Fleck, there is his twisted, depleted body, his dancing and even his laughing to the point of choking. You will find it hard to tear your eyes away.
The Academy will be calling, though a cynic would say that's a given as high-profile portrayals of mental illness are often Oscar bait.
The score and set design are also stunning, building the tension of a Gotham that convincingly mirrors the rundown New York of 1981, when the Big Apple really was rotting.
The streets are piled high with garbage and rats run free. Ordinary folk are downtrodden while the rich are oblivious.
Even the man who wants to save the city, Thomas Wayne aka Batman's dad, comes across as an arrogant boor.
Yes, the allegories of modern societal woes – and hatred of elites and the 1% – are not subtle.
Rather than being smart, this film is often so obvious, you have answered a flat "Yes" before it gets to ask, "Do you see what I did there?"
And the plus points are not enough to combat the problems.
Joker's main issue is that it wants to have its custard pie and eat it too.
Phillips appears desperate for Joker not to be a comic book film and yet it keeps needlessly dropping Batman references.
Joker serves more as Phillips' homage to Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver and The King Of Comedy. To the point that you wonder if Joker has been used a Trojan clown.
Aside from sharing plot points, Easter eggs are strewn in plain view, which along with the Batman references, are just too much of a wink to the audience for a film aiming for seriousness.
The jury is out on whether the use of a track by convicted paedophile Gary Glitter for the scene of Joker dancing down some steps is misguided or a lame attempt at edginess. Either way, it has to be accepted that the mix of those visuals with a different tune was much more effective in the trailer.
There are so many missed opportunities – in particular the scenes with Zazie Beetz. They could have played a much bigger role in Arthur's descent but are too casually brushed aside.
You have to make a few logic leaps to get Fleck to the third act. Some point to those being down to the "unreliable narrator" aspect. Some could also say it's just sloppy story-telling.
With no huge plot surprises, it's another case of waiting for a film to make reveals you had figured out much earlier. Less "Ta-daa", more "Ta-duh".
And that meandering-to-glacial pace also means that while we know who Fleck is meant to become, it takes far too long to get there.
So while the Joker is a clown-faced sociopath, not all clown-faced sociopaths are the Joker.
There’s nothing here to suggest this Joker is a man with a plan. Everything happens to him, at no point is he controlling his destiny. He's almost an observer in his own story.
The really annoying thing is that at the end of the day, this is a film about a man's breakdown albeit with some DC Comics properties slapped on it.
And yet, Joker is the rarest of films – for all its flaws, it is still one that needs to be seen and can't be ignored.
STARRING: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy
DIRECTOR: Todd Phillips
THE SKINNY: Life is not good for downtrodden clown-for-hire Arthur Fleck (Phoenix). A carer for his mother and afflicted with an uncontrollable cackle, he loses himself in fantasies of gaining fame as a stand-up comedian. After being beaten up, he is given a gun. Then his life goes from bad to worse.