Movie Review: Joker

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Director: Todd Phillips

by Jason Koenigsberg

Let’s just get this out of the way. This negative review has nothing to do with the controversy surrounding the release of the Joker as an ‘Anarchist’s Cookbook’ on how to incite riots. It is understandable why some viewers will find this movie to be an incendiary excuse for mentally ill white men to lash out against society, but anyone stupid enough to be inspired by this film to commit violence needs more than just psychiatric help. They need to get a life, and see better movies.

Now that my need for a PSA disclaimer is over, let’s discuss Joker. When the previews first came out it was immediately getting comparison’s to Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy (1982) with Robert De Niro as a crazed wannabe comic obsessed with a comedian/talk show host played by Jerry Lewis. I was hoping that this Joker would be more than just a remake of that film with the main character being Batman’s archenemy. Instead, Joker is a rip off of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), which Scorsese and De Niro already spoofed with the aforementioned King of Comedy. Taxi Driver is the superior film but it is also much easier to duplicate. They even managed to get De Niro to play a talk show host in Joker which Scorsese served as a producer. This Joker is a superficial social commentary about the lack of mental health support in America. There are not enough people or resources to help those suffering from mental issues. It is a parable only on a superficial level. Nobody suffering from a mental illness would explain their personal health right before they shoot someone in the face as this movie does. Joker is as subtle about its subject matter and message as a bullet to the head. 

Not that this movie does not deserve some credit for style. It opens up with an old school Warner Bros. logo that the studio used in the late 70’s and early 80’s setting the mood. Then the first shot has our main character Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) sitting at a mirror putting on clown make up as the radio shares news about the crime and disease infested slums of Gotham City establishing the setting. Director Todd Phillips is going to great lengths to recreate the late 70’s and early 80’s Martin Scorsese films by making his Gotham City look like the mean streets of New York that Scorsese used to film his classics from that era. Do not be fooled, Joker is imitation Scorsese, accept no substitutes. Plus, what business does the director of Road Trip (2000), Old School (2003), and The Hangover (2009) have getting a huge budget to do his impression of Martin Scorsese? Why are all of these comedy directors trying to get so dramatic making political statements and trying their hand at drama? Adam (Anchorman) McKay directed The Big Short (2015) and Vice (2018). Peter (There’s Something About Mary) Farrelly directed Green Book which won Best Picture last year. Now Todd Phillips wants to get in on the action. Why so serious?

Sadly, Todd Phillips is in way over his head. He is trying hard to make a film about how the wealthy do not care for the well being of the poor both then in 1981 when the movie takes place and reflect how Americans feel about their government now, but he tries so hard he misses the point. He understands what Scorsese films looked like with the shot composition, the lighting, and the sets, but not what made them work so effectively. De Niro’s character Travis Bickle showed us with subtleties that he was an emotionally scarred Vietnam veteran with severe mental problems. He never came out and said he had a mental illness as nobody would realistically be that self-aware and explain their problems to an audience right before they commit a heinous act of violence. This movie copies Taxi Driver but none of the dark complexities underneath its facade. Travis Bickle had serious issues but he also had redeeming qualities. We understood why he was lonely and wanted romance and companionship, why he felt hurt after being rejected, why he did not understand how society worked because of his experiences at war and his job driving around the city. Plus, it examined what makes a character a hero. He did save a young girl from a life of prostitution, take down her pimp, and return her to her parents. It just went into the psychology of his disturbed mind and rationale for doing so. Joker‘s Arthur Fleck has no redeeming characteristics other than being shunned by people and disregarded by society.  Joker has a nihilistic point of view, Taxi Driver had a righteous point of view despite it being told through the mind of a disturbed loner. This review may seem repetitive continuously mentioning Taxi Driver but Joker is derivative of that film in so many ways. They even make obvious references when Arthur Fleck and his female neighbor/love interest point their finger to their head and pull the trigger as if it were a gun killing themselves on more than one occasion. Zazie Beetz plays his neighbor and there is an obvious twist with her character where if the screenplay did not go in that direction, she would be a nominee for worlds worst mother.  

Despite all of that, Joaquin Phoenix does once again deliver a stellar performance. He is the films only redeeming quality that is worth all of the praise and hype Joker has received. And like last years You Were Never Really Here his performance is wasted on a movie unworthy of his immense dedication and talent. Practicing his laugh as the Joker had to give him headaches and his weight loss made his physical appearance extremely gaunt. He is a gifted actor but wasting his time trying so hard in showy roles. His best moments came with scenes involving his lack of a father figure and how it effected his identity. His loss of masculinity leads to toxic masculinity, another theme Scorsese’s films deal with. Also, this movie does add some gravitas to the superhero genre that few other movies have just by mimicking a type of film that has never been combined with comic books.  Joker is trying so hard to be taken seriously that it apes Scorsese’s style and adds nothing new except face paint to the main character. He is not really an anti-hero, nor is he a villain, he is just a loser who gets caught up in senseless violent crimes yet manages to have the good fortune to end up being a guest on his favorite talk show out of nowhere. What convenient writing. Joker is a rip off of Taxi Driver, nothing more. It is the equivalent of imitation meat, it might taste good to some, but it still never tastes like the real thing. 

Skip Joker and just watch or rewatch Scorsese’s masterwork Taxi Driver.


  1. Or lacks the protein? Great review, Jason. I love Joaquin Phoenix and I’d see it just to see him but that may not be enough reason.

  2. Or lacks the protein? Great review, Jason. I love Joaquin Phoenix and I’d see it just to see him but that may not be enough reason. I don’t have a prob with directors doing a variety of genres. Keeps perspectives interesting 😀

  3. I found the movie extremely interesting. Joaquin Phoenix acting was tremendous and it must have been a very difficult role to play. Just looking at how thin he got playing the role of Arthur Fleck was amazing. I read he lost 52 lbs. Your review was good but I don’t pick apart movies the way you do. I found the Joker definitely worthy of a night out at the movies. I also believe he will win the best actor award at the Oscars.

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