⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Run Time: 2 hours 1 minute
Stars: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Frances Conroy
Writers: Todd Phillips, Scott Silver
Director: Todd Phillips
First, let’s get this out of the way: Joker, director Todd Phillips’ stylish genesis story for the most iconic villain in the Batman canon, is not measurably more violent than any number of other action movies out there today.
What’s more, the rich atmosphere of the film is at times extraordinarily tactile. Phillips has created a world for his audience to live in: drag your fingers along the paint chips of a peeling wall; scuff your shoes on the littered sidewalks; dab your finger in the smeared greasepaint on a sad clown’s face.
And at its center is a monumental film performance: Joaquin Phoenix attacks the role with what amounts to a two-hour silent primal scream. At times he seems to descend from the screen, kneel on the fold-down theater seat in front of you and push his tragic face into yours, radiating a smoldering heat that makes you wish you’d ordered extra ice for your drink at the concession stand.
And yet…and yet, Joker is a hollow Fabergé egg of a film, crafted with over-the-top artistry on the outside, empty of meaningful context beneath its brittle shell.
We meet the titular character when he’s just an ordinary Joe, a loner named Arthur Fleck. He’s got dreams of becoming a standup comic, but he’s also got an unspecified brain condition that causes him to burst out into inappropriate laughter and fits of compulsive behavior. Late at night, after tucking in his invalid mother (Frances Conroy), Arthur watches a talk show hosted by a low-rent Johnny Carson-type comic named Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), imagining himself to be a guest on the host’s couch.
“Wait a minute,” I hear you saying. “Isn’t this exactly the same plot as Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy? Didn’t that movie have De Niro as a deeply disturbed standup wannabe, and didn’t he sit alone at home pretending to hold court on the couch of a late-night host?”
Well, yes. In fact, for those of us who treasure The King of Comedy as one of Scorsese’s best films, watching De Niro sitting behind that desk in Joker brings the uneasy feeling that, 37 years later, Rupert Pupkin is still hosting The Tonight Show and Jerry Lewis is still tied up in his apartment.
Of course, Arthur Fleck spirals into hyperviolent madness in a way the sweet but delusional Rupert Pupkin never did. His progressive dissembling is painstakingly portrayed against the background of a Gotham City where the oppressed underclass — victimized in undefined ways by the town’s super-rich overlords — is, like him, barreling down a one-way road to violent eruption.
Phillips’ vision of Gotham City is a parody of 1980s New York City, as envisioned by someone who wasn’t there at the time. Garbage is piling on the sidewalks, social services have been yanked from those who need them most, and thousands upon thousands of homeless people mill about, hoping the uber-rich tycoons in their suburban mansions and midtown penthouses will toss them a coin or a bone.
Riding a graffiti-ridden subway one day — still in his clown suit and makeup after being fired from his job — Arthur is hassled by some Wall Street punks in suits. Arthur responds in a reasonable manner: He shoots them dead. And now he is a media hero: the mysterious clown who took out three privileged merchants of greed. It’s an approximation of the 1980s Bernie Goetz saga, but of course Phillips gets it backwards: Bernie was the guy in the suit and the guys he shot on the New York subway were were poor teens who may or may not have been trying to mug him.
Immediately, the mysterious killer clown becomes a Gotham media sensation, inspiring thousands to take to the streets in clown masks chanting, “Kill the rich!” Oddly, Phillips doesn’t seem to have much of a problem with this — certainly Arthur doesn’t, as he wanders the streets of the riot-torn city, watching with obvious pride the anarchic fruits of his violent deed and engaging in his own self-affirming acts of gratuitous brutality.
It all leads to a climactic and admittedly breathtaking scene on Murray Franklin’s TV show, one that we all see coming — yet we keep hoping will unfold differently than we expect.
One has to wonder why the violence of Joker is eliciting such outrage in social media. And true, we heard much the same sort of outcry a half-century or so ago in response to Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch and Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. But Peckinpah was defiantly re-defining the Western, objecting to the bloodless violence that had sanitized the genre. And Kubrick, working from Anthony Burgess’ novel, was examining the persistent role violence plays in our society and the perils of free will.
Joker is telling us…what? That comic book-phony bad beginnings lead to comic book-phony reigns of terror? The story arc of the character Joker— a troubled man who sinks into the depths of violent insanity — is fatally incomplete. It’s not really an arc at all; just an inverted super slide that disappears into inconsequential darkness.
It all reminds me of a Goth teenager: He dresses in black, circles his eyes with mascara and mopes around in his room, all the time with no idea what he’s so depressed about.
Featured image: Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck in Warner Bros. Pictures, Village Roadshow Pictures and BRON Creative’s Joker, a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Copyright © 2019 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved. Photo Credit: Niko Tavernise
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