Helmer vs. Holmes: Joker

Alex Helmer and Alex Holmes

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Alex Helmer:

Rating: 10/10

Unlike many comic-book movie enthusiasts who were somewhat skeptical about the idea of a standalone Joker movie, I was always on board. With director of “The Hangover” series Todd Phillips at the helm, and one of the decade’s most talented actors, Joaquin Phoenix (“Gladiator” and “Walk the Line”), this film was shaping up to be a game-changer. Even with skyrocketing expectations, I was amazed by this masterpiece that transcends the comic-book movie genre and will no doubt become an instant classic. 

This is Joaquin Phoenix’s movie. Phoenix is able to grasp the human aspects of Arthur Fleck, the Joker, in such a way that it actually leads you to sympathize with the character. You can feel the anger and frustration building up in a man who is continuously beaten down by society. In the senseless beatings and heinous lies spread about a man that just wanted “to spread laughter and joy to the world,” you can understand why the Joker was born. From the seemingly ceaseless laughter due to his condition (the Pseudobulbar Affect), to the unnerving dance that Phoenix is able to express his emotions through, Phoenix delivers a performance that rivals that of Heath Ledger, a former joker.

The plotline also gives a new take on the classic falling into madness storyline made popular by preceding narratives like Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The film takes inspiration from films like “Taxi Driver” and “King of Comedy” without feeling too familiar. For instance, the film has far more emphasis on the implications of mental health. As the film progresses, we receive more of Fleck’s background and the driving forces behind his condition, rather than Bickle and Pupkin ( in“Taxi Driver” and “King of Comedy”) who remain mysterious.

Other than mental health, there are so many other current and pertinent issues represented that you wouldn’t expect from a comic-book film such as health care, income inequality, and physical health.

In addition to the plotline, the technical aspects of this film are brilliant. The cinematography is absolutely beautiful, and the score is one for the ages. And as an avid Frank Sinatra fan, I was pleased with the vivacious soundtrack. 

“Joker” is simply overloaded with moments of outstanding cinema. The most stunning of these is Fleck finally receiving the infatuation he longed for, standing on a cop car, smearing blood on his face with a smile, as anarchy coupled with newly found faith surrounds him. It’s a scene of absolute perfection. Whether it’s Fleck dancing down the stairs, or causing chaos on Murray’s talk show, there are several moments in “Joker” that are unforgettable.

 It’s safe to say that I understood this film’s punchline: it was so tragic that it was funny.

 

Alex Holmes:

Rating: 2/10

Contrary to what the numerous articles on the subject may have you believe, the new “Joker” movie, based on the DC villain, isn’t dangerous, crazy, or a call-to-action for incels. It’s violent, but not even the most violent of the year. And to say that the movie encourages its audience to take up arms alongside Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is naive thinking. Critics and audience members who want their heroes and villains all good or all bad can go and watch a Marvel movie. 

However, just because the movie doesn’t incite mass violence doesn’t mean it’s a great film. Other than a nerve-jangling score by Hildur Guðnadóttir and an exquisitely physical performance by Phoenix, Todd Phillips’ “Joker” is a pretty soulless riff on better films and a predictable attempt at a character study. 

Modern-day audiences who may not be familiar with Martin Scorsese’s 1976 classic “Taxi Driver” and his lesser-known 1982 picture “The King of Comedy” will likely hail “Joker” as a revelatory masterpiece. While paying homage to inspirational films is great, there is a fine line between reverence and rip-off. “Joker” crosses that line. 

The central conceit of the film, that a deranged loner steadily becomes crazier as the city decays around him, is stolen right from “Taxi Driver’s” Travis Bickle. And a major plotline from the new film, involving a late-night comedian, is also completely unoriginal, ripped straight from Scorsese’s “King of Comedy,” a film about a misanthropic loner living in his own world.

Aside from being a lame copy of better movies, “Joker” labors so hard to take itself seriously that the first two-thirds of the movie end up being quite a slog. The movie plods along, going from familiar plot beat to familiar plot beat, even though we all know where it’ll end up. “Joker” has been called a different kind of comic-book movie, and while it certainly presents a different vision from an “Avengers” movie, it still gets bogged down by its origin story, just like so many of the superhero films it is trying its best to distance itself from.

Perhaps the biggest issue with “Joker”, and why it’s not on the level of the films it rips off, lies in its themes. A great movie (which this one desperately wants to be) resonates because of its themes. You can go into an arthouse film and learn something deep about humanity that has the potential to change your worldview. The problem with “Joker” is that it seems to be saying something important, but is so neutral in its stance that it ends up saying nothing. 

“Joker,” while an entertaining, well-made film, doesn’t stand on its own two legs or resonate beyond surface-level theatrics and one bone-chilling performance by Phoenix. Call me crazy, but “Joker” doesn’t bring anything new to the table.