Joker 2019: An R-Rated Dark Comedy Film That Incites Laughter While Also Tackling Mental Illness

What if we took a comedy director seriously? I feel like this is the question that notable R-rated comedy director Todd Phillips proposes to the audience with his newest film, Joker. For an example of a past attempt, he directed 2016’s War Dogs which took an interesting spin on a serious war story like that of Americans fighting in the Middle East. Some could say he took a play out of the Adam McKay book of directing (McKay often puts comedic emphasis on serious topics as well - like in 2015’s The Big Short). Though a little more underwhelming than the aforementioned film, Joker plays on Phillips’ ability to make an R-rated comedy more profound.

Joker can be described as a dark comedy that is also in essence an origin story to the villain of Gotham city of the Batman universe. This will also satisfy fans of Batman comics by enhancing the series’ lore through a new installment - of course, as a result people will groan about yet another superhero movie, but this is simply just today’s reality.

Prior to becoming the Joker, we meet Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) who has a job as a clown, spreading cheer at childrens’ hospitals and doing other odd clown-related jobs. However, things don’t always go as planned because criminal acts in Gotham city are on the rise and Arthur always seems to fall as victim. To make things worse, he also deals with a condition where he has random fits of laughter, which mostly don’t fall in line with the punchlines of his jokes, making for a rather unnerving display. In essence, his mental health alienates him from others. His dream or aspiration is to be a standup comedian and make people laugh, brought out brilliantly through Phoenix's performance, saying “My mother always tells me to smile and put on a happy face. She told me I had a purpose: to bring laughter and joy to the world!”

The other side of Gotham sees the rich and elites portrayed by Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) who is running for mayor. Wayne sees people like Arthur as the literal clowns of society. The plot thickens when Arthur loses his job and his life starts spiralling out of control as he descends into violence. Without spoiling anything, the film continues to divulge in Arthur and Wayne’s spiraling relationship as they both descend into each other’s madness.

Unfortunately, I have to say that all the film’s praise should go to Joaquin Phoenix who delivers one the best performances of the year to date. His displayed mannerisms down to the laugh, nervous ticks, and dancing show the full talent of Phoenix on full cylinders. From what I've seen, critics have not been enamoured by the film mostly because of its notions of violence and portrayal of an inherent societal toxicity within the real world. However, in response, I’ll propose this notion to the aforementioned critics…

Can an R-rated comedy director direct a film not only outside of his usual genre, but also offer the audience a mirror into what society is like for people suffering from mental illness? With this question proposed, I feel that Phillips is making a statement that we should take comedy directors more seriously and that they should be able to work outside of their respective home genres. In Joker, Phillips has successfully created a dark comedy based on a comic book supervillain that not only adds mythology to the established comic book series, but questions the state of 2019's mental health landscape when the film’s protagonist succumbs to his madness, rather than successfully being treated. To me this is the brilliance of Joker and I’ll let Mr. Phillips have the last laugh, no matter what critics say.

Remi is the host of At The Movies which features everything new and noteworthy in the world of cinema. The show goes live every Tuesday at 8:00 AM.