Take Joaquin Phoenix out, and Todd Phillips' latest offering, Joker, is nothing but a comedy of cliches. Possibly because Phillips and his co-writer Scott Silver had to work vigorously on developing the character Joker to match it with the Christopher Nolan-Heath Ledger version from The Dark Knight. When it came to scripting rest of the movie, exhausted from their extensive character development exercise, they must have resorted to borrowed options.
The movie, with great pain and in detail, explains how Arthur Fleck turns into Joker dejected by the way the world treats him. Thanks to Phillips and Silver, Phoenix was able to bring out the king among the Jokers. But he shied away from dethroning The Joker of the Pack - Ledger, in a deck that consists of names like Mark Hamill, Jack Nicholson, Jared Leto, Cesar Romero, Zach Galifianakis. According to The Washington Post's ranking by David Betancourt, legendary Mark Hamill takes the top spot, above Ledger, for lending his voice to the 90s TV show Batman - The Animated Series. And no complains as we agree that Phoneix halted just behind Ledger.
This is in no way a comparison of the acting skills of Ledger and Phoneix but an assessment of their Jokers. Phoneix has put his body and mind through a great ordeal en route to be the Joker. The most traumatising part for Phoneix, however, would have happened behind the cameras when he had to shed the false alter ego of Joker floundering back to the real self. It is a wonder to see how these great artists do that after such an intense performance. It is this pain of Phoneix that is helping the movie at the box office world over.
A part of the credit for making Arthur's 'descend' into Joker an immersive experience on the screen should go to Lawrence Sher's frames, which were lively most of the times. They not just followed Phoneix like a shadow but added depth to the otherwise shallow narration on many occasions.
Phillips crafted M. Night Shyamalan-like moments but lacked the sixth sense perception to allow the audience to think. Talking to IMDb producer Alex Logan, Phillips listed out a series of films like Mean Streets, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Taxi Driver, Network, The King of Comedy, etc. to state that Joker is not just a movie in the Martin Scorsese-verse. But those attempts only left Phillips in revealing the mix he used to craft the Gotham of Joker.
Amid the grandeur of Joker and the cliches, Phillips dared to address the current sociopolitical situation in the US and rest of the world. The anxiety of people in the lower strata was depicted strongly in the movie while paving the way for Joker. People of Gotham's eagerness to clasp on to things that would seem to shed even a glimmer of light on their hopeless lives speak volumes about how overwrought is the present-day world.