Since the year 2014, my small movie going clique has felt hesitant about films with huge buzz and Oscar Best Picture wins or nominations. I myself cannot believe that it’s been six years since the year of the Birdman. But ever since we experienced this wretched, pretentious insult of a film, the lowest of low bars for a film has been, well, was it better than Birdman?
Thus it is that I have only just now watched Todd Phillips’ Joker last evening.
I had not expected to enjoy the steak I cooked as much as I had, and nor had I imagined that I would be seeing such a fine film. The steak because, despite it being a wonderfully marbled New York strip that sat in a sous vide bath at 130 degrees for nearly four hours that was then perfectly seared for 38 seconds a side in a piping hot cast iron skillet, but that I realized somewhere in the process that I did not have a drop of red wine in the entire place.
The film because I could not have imagined how many things a single film could do and how well it could do them, and also because from what I had seen and read and heard of it previously, it kinda smacked a bit of Birdman. But I can guarantee that Joker is far and away better than Birdman.
There is the sublime performance by Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck, how he inhabits his character, how he fills out the space, how he runs, how he laughs uncontrollably, often showing Fleck fighting this often inappropriate response. Also remarkable is Fleck’s visible transformation as he assumes his role as “Joker.” This change is clear-cut, and the audience is transparently privy to Fleck’s decision points, misguided as they might be.
There is this film’s most effective origin tale. Any comics-based movie is going to be tempted to tweak the character-origin. See 1989’s Batman, directed by Tim Burton, which introduced the detail that, indeed, it was a young Jack Napier / Joker who was responsible for shooting down Thomas and Martha Wayne in cold blood while young Bruce looked on.
This detail provided motivation and conflict for Batman in that film, but it has always seemed too pat an explanation to me, and certainly not one we had seen previously in the Batman lore. I am much more comfortable with the story told by this Joker, that the Waynes’ murders were not directly the Joker’s doing but instead were carried out by his inspiration and example.
And while Joker is yet another try for an origin tale, it is also a deeper-reaching story. Our villain’s metamorphosis is presented sympathetically—he is beaten into it, physically, mentally, emotionally. This is a story of the overrun, the neglected, of those screwed by society’s inequities. It is a story that highlights mental illness, its taboos, of a guy who, to be honest, made legitimate attempts to seek help from a system that pushed him into the cracks. This Joker was not born. But he was most certainly created.
It is a shame my misgivings kept me from Joker so long, and it was only serendipity that had me sitting down to my late steak dinner when this happened to be showing on the HBO. Joker is better than Birdman, by far. We may in fact now start asking if such-and-such a film is “as good as Joker.”
Now that’s a bar to meet.