‘Joker’ is a crookedly compelling anthology film with a distorted take on mental illness

That purple suit, that emerald green hair, that menacing laugh — whether you’ve seen a single Batman film or not, you know exactly who I’m talking about.

For nearly 80 years, the Joker has terrorized millions and cemented his status as one of the most iconic villains of all-time. But his reputation precedes him, and with all those years and adaptations comes an increasingly daunting pressure to live up to the “genius” of the Joker.

For many, myself included, Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning performance of the Joker in 2008’s “The Dark Knight” was truly untouchable. So, Joaquin Phoenix, who boldly took on the role for 2019’s “Joker,” had a lot of hype to live up to, to say the least. Ledger is the ultimate Joker — and will likely hold that title for many years to come — but Phoenix gives a compelling performance that makes the character feel new and authentic. 

That being said, DC’s latest cinematic adaptation of Batman’s maniacal archnemesis is far from perfect — even if its titular lead comes pretty damn close.

“Joker” expectedly rose some eyebrows when it was announced, not only because it’s a DC film — sorry, but “Justice League” was one of the worst films I’ve seen in a LONG time — Warner Bros. secured Todd Phillips (yes, the guy who directed “The Hangover” trilogy) to helm the project. And as great as those films may be, they’re a far cry from the darkness of, well … anything in the Batman universe. (Thankfully, this film isn’t even remotely comparable to “The Hangover” series.)

So, what’s the problem? “Joker” exceeds the expectations set for it, right? Well, not exactly. 

The film introduces audiences to Arthur Fleck (Phoenix), a broken man who leads a seemingly innocent life as a party clown — though we know he will ultimately become the monster that is the Joker. He suffers from pseudobulbar affect (PBA), a neurological condition that prompts uncontrollable emotional outbursts such as laughing or crying. An aspiring comic, Arthur is often misunderstood and ridiculed for being “different” — something with which most of us can relate.

“Joker” does a solid job making us feel empathy toward such a despicable individual. Where it fails, though, is in its execution. While its intentions are good, the film rather abruptly shifts from trying to make a statement on the importance of mental health to perpetuating the rather problematic view that mental illness is to blame for the rising violence in this country

As skeptical as I was about the film’s true potential to incite real-world violence, I can confirm that the police presence at nearly every theater screening the film last weekend was entirely justified. The framing of the film’s first act creates a character who we’re supposed to feel compassion toward, yet by “Joker’s” conclusion, Arthur’s actions — immoral as they may be — are seemingly encouraged by those around him. While I wholeheartedly believe Phillips intended for audiences to interpret that differently, “Joker” largely fails in properly addressing the psychological trauma faced by both the character and our own society. 

One of “Joker’s” most glaring problems is that we’re seeing the film through the perspective of a mentally ill character haunted by his own delusions, which makes him a very unreliable narrator and, therefore, gives us an equally incoherent narrative at times. And when it is coherent, it’s typically — and dangerously — vindicating the Joker’s behavior.

Needless to say, “Joker” is far from perfect. Its visually stunning cinematography, captivating performances and daringly successful departure from the norms of traditional comic book films make it a truly riveting piece of work. But I still can’t fully recommend “Joker” to audiences. In spite of all that makes it good, it’s also a disturbing and potentially toxic attempt at glorifying mental illness. 

I wanted to enjoy “Joker,” but found it to be a relatively underwhelming anthology film for a character of his magnitude. The comic book films to follow this one should absolutely seek influence in the things it did right. But as far as progressing the conversation around mental health in this country, it couldn’t have come at a worse time — for every step forward it takes, it takes another two steps back.

Rating: 3/5 stars