‘I’ ON CULTURE
Todd Phillips’ Joker is a tough, strange film that at times reaches brilliance. But the very toughness, the grittiness of the story, creates a kind of moral warp that makes most people uneasy. It is really good in places, graced by an incredible performance by Joaquin Phoenix. Yet it is also a film that never finds its heart.
Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) is a complete loser. As a rent-a-clown, he is a failure in a job where the performance bar is set very low. At the start of the film, a group of teens steal the sign he is carrying for a going out of business sale and beat him senseless. His boss docks his pay for the sign. He is given a gun for “protection” but drops it while performing in a children’s ward and loses his job. At home he takes care of his crazy mother (Frances Conroy) to the point of giving her baths. I did say this film was weird, didn’t I? He does have a fairly reasonable relationship with a young mother in his building Sophie (Zazie Beetz) but things begin to fall apart when he starts doing stand-up comedy. His laugh, uncontrollable, gets in the way, and a video of it winds up being shown on the late-night TV show of his idol Murray Franklin (Robert DeNiro) as a target for laughter. And then he has a sudden life change when he realizes it is far better to do unto others than to have them do unto him.
His act of violence turns his image into a symbol for the poor, the “forgotten” people of Gotham City, who begin to riot and act out in his name. Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), a wealthy billionaire and father of you know who, calls for action against vigilantism. In the midst of all of this, Fleck discovers connections between Wayne and his family. And “the fun” really begins.
This is a very political movie. Although some of the Marvel and DC films have been political before, this carries things to new heights. In “The Dark Knight” series, Batman is considered a vigilante and outside the law. In Captain America: Civil War there is a struggle between those who favor individual decisions about what’s right versus those of groups of nations. And, of course, the two final Avengers films are about extreme environmentalism… Thanos kills half the living beings in the universe to “create balance.” But Joker deals with class issues. Fleck is seriously mentally ill, but the government cuts mental programs to save money. When Fleck asks a clearly non-caring social worker what will happen when he no longer gets the seven different medications he is on, you know there will be trouble ahead — and the city’s leaders clearly do not care. Wayne directly calls out the poorer people who have followed the joker as part of the problem.
Gotham, which looks at times awfully much like my old neighborhood in The Bronx, is not a nice place to be. Fleck is a victim, far more badly treated than most. And then he finally decides that all the things holding him down are features, not disabilities. And when he does that, he is casually fearsome.
Phoenix is brilliant. His performance goes far beyond what we call “acting.” He manages to make us have no pity at all for a man who is beaten and destroyed by an uncaring, nasty world because he himself is so loathsome. It is a strangely powerful performance, although it, ironically, is weakest when he is simply being the Joker, rather than Fleck. Heath Ledger’s legendary performance turned the Joker into a symbol of total nihilistic destruction for the fun of it. Phoenix in full makeup seems almost a bit bored.
The rest of the cast, albeit in smaller parts, is excellent. I liked Beetz as the one person providing a modicum of a decent relationship. Cullen as Thomas Wayne was strong; not really villainous, just callously uncaring. Conroy was excellent as the crazed mother. And DeNiro was a nice, affable semi-clone of Johnny Carson.
Should you see the movie? If you like tough, gritty films, sort of colorful film noir, you should really go. This world is as tough and mean as any. But it is far more an indictment of our uncaring times than a story of a twisted man. That villain might be the center, but it seems the world is far more evil than he might ever be.