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First, let’s address the controversies regarding this movie. Many talk about the violence in the film and how it might inspire violence. There have been much more violent films. And the movie is rated R, so it’s not for kids anyway. Next, the fact that a mass shooting happened at a movie theatre in Colorado during opening night of The Dark Knight. Many think it’s insensitive for the studio to release this “Batman” movie with violence. Look…it’s not a studios job to figure out of their pictures will offend anyone. There are probably people offended by every movie that comes out, for a variety of reasons. They give Woody Allen a 3-picture deal, then they don’t even release his movie a few months ago because of years old allegations. That’s $50 mil down the drain.

There was a film (Donnie Darko) that started with an airplane engine falling through a house and killing a kid, but because 9/11 happened, the movie wasn’t released in theatres. I find it a bit more odd that people aren’t up in arms with the amount of cigarettes characters always smoke on screen. There was talk that that would be curbed, but it hasn’t been. And you think teens aren’t watching characters smoke in movies and thinking it’s cool? Yet even with that, it’s not a studios job to parent your child. They can learn cigarettes are bad from you, and they can watch Sesame Street and Mr. Rodgers for educational purposes. R rated movies are for adults, and filmmakers have characters smoke for a variety of reasons (and lots of cigarettes were harmed during the filming of this).

The problem I had going into this movie is that when I was 20 and “Batman” came out, I thought Jack Nicholson was the perfect Joker (I wasn’t born when the TV series ran with Cesar Romero as the Joker).

I was pleasantly surprised with Heath Ledger as the Joker in The Dark Knight (and so were others — he won the Oscar for the role). 

As much as I dig Jared Leto as an actor, I didn’t care for his Joker. It was like he was doing Ledger on steroids.

There’s Oscar buzz on Joaquin Phoenix as the Joker, and it’s hard to fault his performance. His acting is stellar but the problem is with Todd Phillips’ direction (he’s the guy behind all the Hangover movies). He created a character whose backstory doesn’t match up with the way we’ve come to know the Joker. We know him as a playful, humorous, and charismatic madman. This joker is just a psycho, and…he’s rather sad. You spend half the movie feeling sorry for him. 

Another problem is that Phillips has given us a Gotham that’s not as interesting to look at as the previous Batman films. It looks like a city out of a ‘70s movie. In fact, everything about this movie feels like a ‘70s film. At times, there’s a bit of Carrie and Network. Mostly it’s just stealing from Martin Scorsese flicks (Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy). They even cast Robert De Niro, who was in both of those movies. And it’s rather distracting that De Niro is playing a talk show host since in King of Comedy, De Niro was the wannabe comedian, living with his mom, and hoping to get on the late night show. I don’t know about you, but…I don’t like to watch a movie and start thinking about the other movies that these actors have been in that are similar. I’m fine (in fact I welcome), seeing someone like Marc Maron show up as De Niro’s producer, but not if he would’ve been in one of the previously mentioned films.

Phillips also touches on some hot-button issues (poor people, cut backs on mental health spending, celebrity culture) and some mental issues (child abuse, medications)…yet it doesn’t delve into any of those things quite the way it should. It’s content to just show a clown dancing on stairways (often in slow motion). In one odd choice, they use the Gary Glitter song “Rock and Roll Part 2.” That’s a tune that was played at every sporting event, until Glitter was jailed for repeatedly having sex with minors and possession of child pornography. Perhaps the filmmakers didn’t get the memo. Or perhaps they’re courting all this controversy.

We watch as clown and struggling stand-up comedian Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) continually gets jumped. Sometimes it’s teenagers that just want to mess with a sign twirling clown outside a business…other times it’s rich Wall Street guys harassing a woman on a subway, and then beating him. We know it’s the early ‘80s because people are using pay phones and they have answering machines with cassettes. 

Arthur seems like a decent son to his mother (Francis Conroy of Six Feet Under), helping her bathe, and humoring her when she talks about a politician she’s excited to see on TV. He seems to have a crush on a woman that lives in his apartment complex (Zazie Beetz from Deadpool 2). Any guesses on where that’s going to go?

As Arthur slowly goes crazy (and stops taking his meds), he might start killing…but he never does it in the gleeful way the previous Jokers have. And that’s odd, especially since there’s plenty of opportunity for it, especially when one of the victims is another clown!

Phillips also felt that, since Phoenix lost all this weight for the role, he should show a lot of weird poses with his shirt off, so we can all be grossed out by his rib cage sticking out. Other times, he thinks we need to see long segments of Arthur dancing like Elaine in that episode of Seinfeld. We get it. He’s nuts. Now move on. Give us a different scene.

There’s a haunting score by Icelandic cellist Hildur Guonadottis that draws you into the gritty look of the city that cinematographer Lawrence Sher also captures. It’s just a shame that this is a humourless, hollow film that goes nowhere. 

Good production design and good performances doesn’t make it a good movie. This is going to disappoint fanboys and teenagers.

I found myself thinking about two other movies that would be better than this. Instead of Arthur Fleck, I much prefer Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon) in Election. In the final chaotic scene in Gotham, we see a marquee for a porno flick, with a sexy woman. It’s called Ace in the Hole. I’m guessing that movie had more happy campers leaving the theater than this film will.

2 stars out of 5.

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