“Joker” looks pretty but lacks depth

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“Joker” looks pretty but lacks depth

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In "Joker" (2019), Joaquin Phoenix's acting is raw and moving despite the basic storyline.

Photo from Warner Brothers under Creative Commons license

In "Joker" (2019), Joaquin Phoenix's acting is raw and moving despite the basic storyline.

Photo from Warner Brothers under Creative Commons license

Photo from Warner Brothers under Creative Commons license

In "Joker" (2019), Joaquin Phoenix's acting is raw and moving despite the basic storyline.

Emily Zhao, Opinions Editor

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As both the winner of the Golden Lion—the top prize at the Venice Film Festival—and the subject of controversy over its depiction of violence, “Joker” will likely continue to receive divisive reviews from critics and audiences alike. Though the cinematography is stunning and Joaquin Phoenix’s acting is spectacularly raw, the plot feels rather one-dimensional and lacks focus on a particular theme.

In the film, Arthur Fleck, played by Joaquin Phoenix, is barely making ends meet as a struggling clown-for-hire in
Gotham City while caring for his sick, old mother and pursuing his dream of becoming a standup comedian. However, as the city and its people continue to beat Arthur down mentally and physically, he eventually violently lashes out, sparking a riotous conflict between the poor and the rich.

The plot, while appropriately dark and broody, fails to show any significant consequences for the Joker’s violent acts and wanders a roundabout route towards an unmoving ending. As all the supporting characters, from the supposedly caring social worker to the talk show host, turn out to be cynical and mistrusting of others, there appears to be no particular uniqueness to Arthur’s plight in this drab, universally hopeless version of Gotham City.

The pacing of Arthur’s transition from nameless criminal to the symbol of the “eat the rich” riots is unrealistically sudden, while other moments like the inciting event, when a group of teenagers beats Arthur up, are overly emphasized and melodramatic. The film takes itself too seriously for anyone to truly cheer for Arthur’s triumph. Wandering between the issues of anti-establishment ire, mental illness, wealth disparity, and parental abuse, director Todd Phillips fails to make any specific point. Additionally, the ambiguity of the ending leaves the audience questioning whether the Joker was victorious or defeated.

If there was a deciding factor for the film, though, Phoenix’s acting turned what was otherwise a somewhat lackluster rehashing of an old story into a nitty-gritty reimagination of the Joker’s typical comic-book origin story. Losing significant weight for the film, Phoenix’s ribs and shoulder blades protrude, adding to the desperate misery of Arthur Fleck.

While the Jokers in other films had their own signature facial expressions, Phoenix depends heavily on the sad, painful laugh which the Joker spends so much effort choking back and suppressing. As the plot progresses, his character becomes darker yet freer at the same time, marking his rapid spiral into insanity. Arthur’s schizophrenic behavior, contrasting with his quiet moments of sanity, all demonstrate this inner conflict as he battles against the demoralization of his dream drawing further away, and against the urge to succumb to suicide. With just a slight twitch of his cheek or the dull glint in his eyes, Phoenix wavers between sadness and madness, making the audience both pity and fear him at the same time.

Phoenix’s acting, along with cinematographer Lawrence Sher’s gorgeous neon-blue and sickening yellow hues, created the potential for the best film out of the DC universe. In particular, using the dramatic flashing between lit and pitch-black, Sher, along with Phoenix’s anguished acting, manages to make Arthur’s fight with three corporate rich men, an otherwise melodramatic attempt at the conflict between rich and poor, into a genuinely tense fight and a disturbingly satisfying murder.

Unfortunately, despite its critical acclaim, “Joker” is a pitiful attempt at creating something edgy, instead landing in the somewhat confusing and overdramatic pile.

In terms of cultural relevance, the film does not live up to its controversy of glorifying violence when the ending fails to instill any sort of righteousness in the Joker’s ascent to viral fame. While it provides a fresh renovation to the typical comic-book origin story with a delicious amount of DC’s dark storytelling, as simply a blockbuster movie, it fails to sell any “message” about any of the issues the plot touches on.