Martin Scorsese’s The King Of Comedy remains my favorite of his films. Just as Network presaged the news would devolve into entertainment, Scorsese’s film predicted the consequences of a pop culture-obsessed society in which amorality wins in the end. The rise of Robert De Niro’s Rupert Pupkin, a struggling comic who lives with his mother and helps kidnap a talk show host in order to get on the air, feels quaint when compared to Joker, its nihilistic, spiritual cousin. With De Niro cast, this time, as the successful talk show host, Joker comes across as King’s bloodier, darker sequel of sorts. Add elements of Taxi Driver and bits of Michael Jackson’s story, and you get this immersive, disturbing film from Todd Phillips, best known as the director of the Hangover franchise. For me, it’s one of the most impressive leaps forward for a filmmaker since Craig Maizin (coincidentally no stranger to the Hangover films) shucked off his big, dumb comedy skills and created Chernobyl.
Joaquin Phoenix stars as Arthur Fleck, a professional clown who has an unnamed, but Tourette’s syndrome adjacent, condition which causes him to laugh at the most inopportune times. His meager existence, which includes living in squalor and caring for his dying mother (France Conroy), serves as a stark contrast to his vivid inner life in which he’s a sweet, promising standup comic who fantasizes about appearing on The Murray Franklin Show. Arthur, ever the unreliable narrator of his own story, suffers from extreme ostracization and bullying, barely able to ever make it home without taking a beating in a dingy alleyway.
It’s no wonder Arthur feels like the living, breathing exemplar of a mental breakdown. Phillips and his talented cinematographer, Lawrence Sher, hone in on Arthur and never let go, employing shallow focus, disorienting music, and the constant threat of violence to convince you how easily the outcasts of the world can snap and exert their power. Joker by no means provides a fun experience, but it has a relentless, consistent focus on the mindset of a good-natured guy who has reached his limits of abuse. More character study than your typically action-packed DC Comics movie, Joker has a slow burn, much like Taxi Driver. Arthur, like Travis Bickle and Pupkin, can’t seem to impress the women in their sights. In Arthur’s case, she’s Sophie (Zazie Beetz), a single mother in his building. Guys like Arthur, however, never find love, especially when they’re too busy getting kicked. When it seems the world has conspired against him too many times, Arthur adopts his Joker persona and, like Bickle, commits a series of horrendous murders. His antiestablishment stances inspire a burgeoning cult of mask-wearing followers, a scarier, extremist version of the Occupy Wall Street protesters.
The film feels like a product of our current times, where unfit leaders proliferate and civil discourse has evaporated. It has no expansive CGI sequences and only a hint of a big, action set piece. It’s all about character, character, character. In other words, this is one comic book film I can truly embrace. Every moment feels overwhelming, dire and sad. Phoenix goes deep here, flailing about, doing a little tap dance because that’s what he thinks of as entertainment, and making your heart break for a guy who can’t seem to catch one.
Even when he snags that proverbial golden ticket late in the film, he can’t help but make a grand mess of it all. Although he plays one of the most notorious of supervillains, Phoenix bleeds for his character and while not making him necessarily sympathetic, his actions feel supported by the crushing society he endures. His performance has so much humanity, filled with rage, psychosis, and yes, an aching need to feel acceptance and love. Sometimes when Phoenix gets lost in a character, I only notice the hard work. Here, I felt his passion.
Occasionally, Phillips brings us sequences of Arthur blissing out to music, waving his arms around like a conductor on a drug-fueled high. The song selections here could have been less on the nose, with such titles as “That’s Life”, “Send In The Clowns” and “Smile” filling up an obvious set list, but Phoenix sells this as his inner soundtrack nonetheless. It also has too many endings, which leads to a little confusion in the final moments. I would have preferred the final shot be of Arthur standing on top of a car much like Michael Jackson did at his infamous molestation trial, and greeting his acolytes. The similarities between these two “freaks” could not feel more pronounced than in this sequence.
Ultimately, I’m not sure what Joker is trying to say. Is it conservative? Liberal? Are we celebrating his crimes because we know his pain? Or are his actions those of a person with a persecution complex who only deserves our scorn? Is he the love child of Rupert Pupkin and Travis Bickle, who gets away with far more than those two did combined? I’m not exactly sure, but as a cautionary tale of what happens to the people we throw away, Joker, while one of the ugliest filmgoing experiences I’ve had in a long while, deals a pummeling but winning hand.
GAY SCALE: For each review, I’ll rate the film on my 50 SHADES OF GAY SCALE to let you know how far it tips in our favor. Joker gets a 5 out of 50. While devoid of out-and-out gay content, it presents a relatable character for anyone who has ever felt unsafe in the world because of their “otherness”.
By Glenn Gaylord
Joker continues to play worldwide.