Monday, March 16, 2020


Directed by Todd Phillips.
2019. Rated R, 122 minutes.
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen, 
Glenn Fleshler, Leigh Gill, Shea Whigham, Bill Camp, Marc Maron 

When news first broke that Batman's arch-nemesis, the Joker, was getting an origin story via solo film, I was skeptical. Hollywood's track record when making a known villain the protagonist of a film is poor, at best. They tend to take the word protagonist as an automatic synonym for hero. This misunderstanding often leads to bland movies that have neutered their main character so they'll be likable and thrust them into some situation in which they must save the world to preserve it for their own future villainy. More specific to this character, Joker works better the less you know about him. This is what makes Heath Ledger's version superior to Jack Nicholson's. In 1989's Batman, Nicholson's Joker received a standard comic book backstory. That's not to mention that the actor stole a page or two from the Caesar Romero playbook. Ledger's Joker seemed to materialize out of thin air in 2008's The Dark Knight. He was a sweaty mass of evil in a dirty purple suit with clown makeup sloppily applied to his scarred face. All we knew of him were his own unreliable anecdotes about how he got that way. It was as if Gotham's diseased womb birthed him a fully grown embodiment of urban decay. Anything learned about where he really came from strips away that imposing shroud and reveals the wizard to be just a man.

With all those things swirling around my bat-addled mind, I contemplated not seeing Joker at all. Not every stretch of darkness needs illuminating. However, I'm a cinephile. the very existence of a movie is almost enough to make me want to see it. I also realize that each of them deserve to be judged on their own merits. Besides, the lead actor is someone I really enjoy. And the Batman universe is one I can't resist. Money paid. Ticket received. Seat taken. Twenty minutes of previews. Showtime.

Our feature presentation starts with Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) staring into a mirror wile applying the clown makeup he would soon become infamous for. He pauses, and makes some pained faces indicating he is not the happiest fellow. Nonetheless, we next see him smiling and dancing while twirling a sign, the latest gig afforded him by his job as a clown for hire. The rest of his day goes as follows: he gets jumped by some teens, goes to see his government provided therapist, gets her to up his meds, hits the pharmacy, trudges home along and endless path of hills culminating in a climb up a daunting set of stairs, meets his cute neighbor Sophie (Beetz) and her son on the elevator, and finally makes it to his apartment where he must take care of his invalid mother Penny (Conroy). She is obsessed with Thomas Wayne, he of getting shot in front of his son fame. Along the way, we also find out Arthur has a condition that causes him to laugh uncontrollably when any strong emotion hits, whether appropriate or not. Every step he takes is filled with misery, dread, and fantasies of normalcy. It is a truly pained existence of the sort Joaquin Phoenix excels at breathing life into. He is a master at getting lost within characters who get lost within themselves. The trick he consistently turns, and turns again here, is submerging himself in the character's core and emerging with the thing that makes him both pathetic and sympathetic. Arthur deems himself tragically flawed. He doesn't see light at the end of his tunnel and spends all of his time guarding against being swallowed by the darkness. Every glimmer of hope is a dream to be chased, but never caught. All of his successes are contained within the boundaries of his daydreams. Phoenix wraps this in a package we want to hug and tell, "It'll be okay." He makes us look forward to any triumph in this person's future. Our desire for Arthur to experience something, anything, that makes him feel good is key to making the movie work.

In trying to exploit that desire is where the movie gets itself in a bit of trouble. As with the best stuff in the Batman universe, Gotham herself is a full-fledged character. She informs the decisions of everyone on-screen. They're all either trying to save, destroy, or retaliate against her. Arthur is her victim, painfully trudging along her digestive tract. To avoid becoming part of the city's forgettable pile of waste, he empowers himself through some heinous acts. The movie works hard to find a way for the people of Gotham to champion him. It does so effectively, but may alienate some viewers. They might assume this is a film without morals, making a hero out of an incel turned full-blown terrorist. It's a perfectly valid interpretation. However, I read it as commentary on the effects of classism, the potential for all-out class warfare, and the way we view and treat the mentally ill. The film runs into the most problems with that last one. While it makes pointed remarks on how mental illness is treated from an institutional standpoint, Joker uses it to remove accountability and, ultimately, having him bask in its glory. It's a necessary step to keep the character as true to his roots as possible while finding a way to celebrate him. Imagine Taxi Driver if Travis Bickle had done everything the same, but without Jodie Foster's character ever showing up.

Fortunately, the execution of the film is absorbing. Take the aforementioned early sequence of Arthur traveling home from work, including the stop to see his therapist. His journey is a succession of obstacles and misunderstandings. when he gets off the bus to walk, almost all of the hills he encounters are going up. Then there are those stairs. We realize that Arthur is a man who never has an easy moment. This creates within us a need for him to stop hurting that carries us through the movie. Intermittent daydream sequences and public failures further position us on Arthur's side. Director Todd Phillips does a masterful job making us root for a character we have a history of recoiling from without making him at all heroic in the traditional sense.

Phillips, Phoenix, and cinematographer Lawrence Sher form the engine that makes the film go, but are not the only working parts. Frances Conroy shines as Arthur's mother Penny. Her performance is very understated in comparison to what it could've been, a raving scenery-chewer. Why it could've been that is revealed as the film goes on. On the other hand, Robert De Niro holds nothing back in his small, but important role as talk-show host Murray Franklin. It works since that's what is needed. Zazie Beetz is just kind of there for much of her time on-screen, but that's clearly by design. When called upon to do something, she helps us with the film's biggest reveal.

The other star of Joker is the thread of very dark humor running through it. To be clear, this is no comedy. Nevertheless, the film delivers timely laughs of a macabre nature. These moments of levity serve to further ingratiate Arthur to us. We're laughing at things we normally wouldn't, and probably shouldn't, but we see light through the darkness. It's the closest the movie can get to having us see things Arthur's way. This is a big reason we feel genuine empathy for a man we would usually just pity from a distance. Even as his actions grow more disparate with our own sensibilities we can't discard him. Arthur occupies a space that's even rare in the canon of antiheroes. We anxiously wait to see what outlandish thing he might do next though we know nothing good can come of this in the eyes of otherwise decent folks, like ourselves. We've bought in to every excuse the film makes for its protagonist. If you don't, you're likely too pure of heart to fall for this film's peculiar charms. The rest of us dare to wish happiness for Arthur. We succumb to our inner-Joker.


  1. I didn't care for this movie at all but I'm happy to see you back posting!

  2. I do like this film though I don't think it's as great as people make it out to be. I enjoyed it and I liked what Joaquin Phoenix did. I still wish they chose another song for Fleck to dance to on the stairs as that's a song I never want to hear again. I just get a bad image of some creepy fat guy in shiny clothes and bouffant hair.

  3. Dell! You're back!!!!!!! I was starting to wonder if you had vanished! I have to tell ya though I have less than zero interest in seeing this film just wanted to let you know I'm glad you've returned. Hope to see lots more show up here. :-)

  4. I did like the film though I don't think it is as great as people claim it is to be. There were better films that year. I did like Joaquin's performance though I really wished they chose another song for him to dance to in the stairs instead of that song by that awful pedophile.