No laughing matter

Todd Phillips’ ‘Joker’ aims for originality, but misses the mark

Max Kriegel, Staff Writer

Todd Phillips’ “Joker” has reared its way into mainstream culture, striking up controversy while garnering praise amongst audiences. The film went so far as to win the Golden Lion, the highest award given at the Venice Film Festival, defying predictions and provoking anticipation from domestic filmgoers. Despite my initial lack of enthusiasm, I quickly got excited in the weeks leading up to the release, and was hopeful that I would like the film. To my surprise, I didn’t. 

“Joker” is primarily dependent on the performance of Joaquin Phoenix as the titular main character, and in that regard, it doesn’t come up short. Phoenix descends into the psyche of a helpless outsider and emerges with a painfully expressive and emotional portrayal worthy of acclaim; it’s just too bad the film’s story isn’t as creative as its lead. 

It’s interesting to see Phillips, a filmmaker generally known for raunchy comedies like “Old School” and the “Hangover” trilogy, deviate from his preferred genre to helm a dramatic character piece, but I found it difficult to find his directorial signature amongst the many references the film uses as its foundation, most notably the overlying homages to Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” and “The King of Comedy,”  in which disturbed individuals lose their grip on sanity inside a seedy metropolis. The incorporation of certain plot elements or themes from other works doesn’t necessarily detract from the film’s merit, but it ends up being uneventful. Whatever “Joker” is trying to philosophize about, whether it be socioeconomic division or the powerful influence of celebrity and mass media, has been expressed much more eloquently by the films it parallels. I felt underwhelmed by the attempt to take said ideologies and fit them to a new narrative, which was ultimately a surface-level approach that didn’t break new ground. In short, there’s definitely some form of social commentary within the narrative, but it’s far from substantial. 

Despite my hang-ups with the story, other aspects of the film are worthy of acclaim. Lawrence Sher’s cinematography impressively conveys the mental state of Phoenix’s character through claustrophobic, confined framing and muted colors, Hildur Guðnadóttir’s score serves as a haunting companion to the plot’s unnerving turn of events, and the supporting cast, most notably including “Taxi Driver” and “King of Comedy’ lead Robert de Niro, succeeds in personifying the unrelenting fire that burns the bridge to Phoenix’s rationality.

“Joker” aims to be a fresh, singular take on the DC supervillain’s origin story, but its over-reliance on similar films before it is a glaring fault that weighs down an otherwise admirable work. That being said, I will be eager to revisit this film in the future, and I recommend those who haven’t to see it in theaters.