Todd Phillips’ “Joker” Is Something To See, But No Laughing Matter

alley scene from the film "Joker" where the main character Arthur Fleck, is seen lying on the pavement after being brutally beaten by a street gang.

 

by Richard Cameron


 

Joker

 

This Sunday, my son and I attended a screening of “Joker” at the Theatre Box, part of the Sugar Factory complex in San Diego’s Gaslamp District.  More about them, in a moment. Don’t worry, I’m not taking a 12 year old to an “R” rated film – he’s a grown adult, even if I’m not.   

Prior to viewing “Joker”, a film written, directed and produced by Todd Phillips – with Bradley Cooper (“A Star Is Born”, “American Sniper”) as co-producer, and released by Warner Bros,  I studiously avoided any exposure to advance reviews of the film, save one and only saw the main trailer, which was fashioned to stimulate curiosity, not satisfy it.

There’s a motive involved with that. I customarily avoid forming any decision on whether or not to see a movie at the theater, based on the advice or discouragement of “film critics”.

Why? Because, even though there may have been some legitimacy to that occupation in a previous era, there isn’t now. It is a discipline that has been invaded by a multitudinous flock of amateurish hacks. They are co-opted, corrupted and dishonest as a group, though there are no doubt,  individual examples that prove an exception.  But most often their guidance is unreliable at best and flat out worthless and deceptive, at worst. 

As a class of individuals involved in the process of the consumption of entertainment product, they are the absolutely lowest denominator as far as talent. The people at the tail end of the crawl on the screen credits are vastly more cognizant of what represents the difference between good and bad films than they are.

They are also the most fearful (used to be music critics), of falling out of collective lockstep with whatever the prevailing zeitgeist is among them. Such is the case with the reaction to  “Joker” among movie critics.

Some, like Stepanie Zacharek, (Time Magazine), don’t even seem to have a basic concept of the fundamentals and the art of acting, much less what is involved in properly interpreting a troubled subject. She says of Joaquin Phoenix’ performance, “Phoenix is acting so hard you can feel the desperation throbbing in his veins. He leaves you wanting to start him a GoFundMe, so he won’t have to pour so much sweat into his job again.” 

Other critics were actually so inept as to have expected this film to have humorous elements mixed into it and were dismissive when they weren’t; proof that they haven’t even a fundamental notion of what the directors of this film were seeking to accomplish. 

Roger Ebert’s review, is so shallow and off the mark completely, that I won’t even waste your time linking it. Peter Bradshaw, in the Guardian, misses the point, saying of “Joker”, “Todd Phillips’ solemn but shallow supervillain origins movie has a strong performance by Joaquin Phoenix but is weighed down by realist detail.” 

That’s a knock on the film, frequently seen from critics, the film’s ‘realism’ – as if movies are no longer about story telling, but instead, merely a lot of razzle dazzle, breakneck paced, distracting objects and dialogue that is actually incessant chatter. To slow down enough to build a firm foundation of the lead character’s personality is a sin, we’re told.

Additionally, there is an objection from a fair amount of these critics, that the empathy for the main character, together with the violence, could stimulate other disturbed persons to act out in similar manner. The problem with that take, is that researchers and sociologists have not discovered any direct connection between violent movies and video games and say, mass shooting events.

And that’s beside the fact that Hollywood is cranking out far more voluminous examples of violence than this movie, and most of them have no context, but are simply gratuitous. 

But, it was a pleasant surprise that so many moviegoers ignored the warnings against this film. Those who did, were rewarded with a creation that is Oscar material from top to bottom. Joker, as of the most recent box office data, is on track to gross $1 billion internationally.  Amazingly, the film was finished on a budget of $55 million.

First off, it should be made clear that Joker will disappoint ticket buyers who are addicted to “escapist” fare of the sort typical to the class of movies associated with characters based on DC or Marvel comics, and “action” movies in the broader genre.

This is not a “thrill ride”, which in the case of “Joker”, is an understatement. There are no special effects, no overt CGI, no protagonists / antagonists leaping from one skyscraper to the next, somersaulting in mid air, absurd chase scenes or anything of the sort. That’s a let down for addicts of that kind of moviegoing experience, which is the run of the mill now.

For me and apparently for a much larger class of movie patrons, it’s a blessed relief. This film is a thought provoking work, in an age when so many, strenuously avoid such a mental engagement. To ask them to think, provokes resentment. It’s a dirty job that even Mike Rowe would have to strongly consider before accepting.

How is the Joker character dealt with here?

Let’s define first, how he is not dealt with. For nearly the entire film, the title subject has no awareness or pretense to such an identity. He is, instead, Arthur Fleck, a 30 ish individual, who works for a clown rental agency and lives with his aged mother in a miserable apartment in a run down, crime infested part of Gotham. He yearns to break into the world of standup comedy.

movie still of "Joker" main character Arthur Fleck, played by Joaquin Phoenix

Fleck, as we become acquainted with him, has no aspirations to become a king pin of an organized crime syndicate or to become a “super villain”. This, as we will discuss at further length, will represent an issue that certain adherents of the established trope of “The Joker”, will take great objection to. Arthur Fleck has no inclinations toward criminal behavior at all. 

What he is, is a man, not a diabolical criminal mastermind.  A man who suffers from a severe chronic mental disorder, the specific diagnosis of  which the film never specifically enumerates, but manifests itself in unwanted, unbidden and tormenting bouts of convulsive laughter, which Fleck cannot anticipate or fully control.

We discover that he is receiving assistance toward the cost of psychiatric medicine, which acts only as a band aid and barely prevents his condition from spiraling out of control.

Arthur desires to function normally and to achieve even a modicum of happiness, but his treatment at the hands of others, renders it an impossibility. I won’t be revealing any spoilers here, if I relate one experience that is shown briefly in the film’s trailer.

Arthur has been sent to a store front to direct passers by to a shop that is clearancing its wares. He is in clown face and costume and holding a sign indicating the sale. A pack of juvenile thugs race by and tear the sign from Arthur’s hands and run off, mocking him as they go. Feeling a responsibility to recover his employer’s property, he proceeds to chase the gang several blocks and confronts them in an alley, where the pack smashes the sign in his face, jumps him and viciously beats him into the pavement, after which they congratulate themselves having left him in a battered heap.

When Arthur recovers enough to make his way back to the office, his boss at the clown agency, accuses him of having stolen the shop owner’s sign and threatens to fire him. Several more such episodes, similar, if not identical, proceed.

People that Arthur comes in contact with in his daily life, are indifferent and dismissive of him at best, and at worst, are demeaning, vicious and violent toward him. For him, it is practically inescapable. The part of the film where circumstances accumulate toward an eruption, is when the city cuts services for the mentally disabled, his social worker is laid off and he has no more funds to purchase medication. Arthur is driven by the various antagonists he encounters, to the breaking point.

The culmination is best described as a person dangling from a precipice, their fingers tenuously clinging to the cliff’s edge and then those fingers are deliberately stomped upon resulting in a free fall. The death warrant to what remains of Arthur’s fragile sanity, is discovering that his psychosis is the product of intense physical abuse from his mother’s boyfriend at a young age and which he had pushed outside the conscious recesses of his psyche.

Arthur snaps and having gained access to a gun, while simultaneously losing access to medication, finds empowerment in responding with violence.

The negative reactions to this film have much to do with the fact that, unlike a horror film, where we condition ourselves to perceive that the violence is entirely fictional, perhaps imaginary and strongly implausible – this film hits much too close to home with the resonance of the mental health crisis in America.

Even when Arthur does have a case worker who can approve his medication, that is all he has access to. The medication is a symptom manager, not a process towards healing of any sort. There is no counseling, no therapy other than the request that he maintain a journal of thoughts and feelings. And when you see this, you reflect that the present situation in this country is much the same and poses the same risks to all of us.

What’s problematic with the trajectory of Arthur’s life here, is that it further challenges the expectations of fans familiar and comfortable with the contours of the “Joker” character, up to the release of this film. 

And I’ll frankly admit that this re-imagining of the Joker is so outside the margins of anything that has been presented up to this point, that it really is a puzzle piece that has no place anywhere with them that it fits.  As Terri White, writing in Empire, notes, “comparing him to Heath Ledger and Jack Nicholson feels like a nonsense: this is a Joker we’ve never seen — in many respects it isn’t the Joker, it’s Arthur.”

This is a diametrically contrary conception of him. Most difficult is that the comic superhero tropes are invariably cast in monochrome. A hero is fundamentally “good” and a villain is invariably “evil” from the womb. No explanation needed or desired. Todd Phillips, as writer and director, has the cheek to defy this convention and many film critics have eviscerated him for doing so.

Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck, in Todd Phillips' film "Joker", in a scene where Fleck attempts to audition as a stand up comic.
Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck, in Todd Phillips’ film “Joker”, in a scene where Fleck attempts to audition as a stand up comic

I should acknowledge that there have been minor deviations in previous film treatments from the strict conventions of the Batman story and some others of the DC stable, which might have afforded Phillips some elbow room, but never to this extent and never with a traditional antagonist or one with this degree of complexity.

Another issue that many will have with this film is that the Batman connection is only peripheral, although it reveals some details that had yet to be established on the precise origins of Bruce Wayne, who is shown only briefly here as a youngster of around 9 or 10 years old.

More prominent, but still minor, are the appearances of young Bruce’s parents, especially “Thomas Wayne”. Wayne is a ruthless, mean spirited, callous titan of the investment trade and member of the kleptocracy, who strictly defines humanity into one of two groups, winners or losers.

Arthur Fleck, due to a particular event in the plot of the movie, becomes, unwittingly and not of his own design, a sort of pied piper to a protest movement arising from the underclass, the working poor and some members of the middle class. There is a bit of a resonance of militant leftist protest groups such as Antifa

This has to do with conditions that materialize from Gotham’s crumbling finances, brought about by insolvency or extreme austerity measures. Which of the two, is not disclosed. Symbolic of the catalyst of the unrest, is the city’s inability to effectively respond to a garbage strike and the consequent pile up of rubbish and the spread of vermin. In this, we have the appearance of class politics and the resulting political divisions. Arthur is swept up in it, but not an active participant.

At no point does Arthur present himself as “Joker” other than in response to a question about what he considers his stage name to be. He does not consciously reinvent himself as any intentionally public figure, outside of his visit by invite, to join Franklin Murray briefly on the evening talk show.

Director Phillips has delivered to movie patrons, a “message film” which is implicit enough to derive a broad notion of the intent, but subtle enough to allow the viewer to draw their own conclusions of the precise message.

Ambiguity, in this case, is our friend although some members of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, have been noted to object to the ambiguity in this film, going so far as to brand it as devoid of a point of view.

Others, including some movie critics, find the violence, “irresponsible”.  And that includes what parallels might exist between the late 70s version of Gotham City and the current situation in America today.

Are we around the corner from a revolt of some dimension, such as is depicted in “Joker”, based on income inequality, the gap between the haves and have nots? Silicon Valley billionaires like Andrew Yang and Nick Hanauer are already discussing the potentials.

I would be remiss not to share my impressions of Joaquin Phoenix. I saw the Ad Astra film about a month ago at the same theater complex and sensed that I had seen a Best Actor contender in Brad Pitt and also a Best Supporting Actor nomination for Tommy Lee Jones and a Best Picture nomination also.

I give the nod to Joaquin Phoenix for the reason that the role gives Phoenix a considerable degree more to work with and expand on.

He is masterful and riveting in the role. That’s saying a lot, because we have seen a lot of remarkable previous Jokers, including Jack Nicholson and the late, Heath Ledger.

The ironic aspect of Phillips’ casting, is that Robert DeNiro, who plays the role of Franklin Murray, a pretty standard iteration of the television talk show host of the era depicted – would have been the most likely to be cast as Arthur Fleck, had this film been made when DeNiro was, say, in his early thirties.

To pull the DeNiro juxtaposition even tighter is to recognize some of the on screen progression of Arthur in that of DeNiro’s Travis Bickle from “Taxi Driver”. It’s hard also, to not see a little of the plot dynamic from “The King Of Comedy”, but to outline this in any more specificity would be to give too much away.

DeNiro plays the Franklin Murray role straight and makes no attempt to project anything more than the script calls for, which of course, is the egotistic, establishment entertainment fixture of late night TV. And, not surprisingly, we find that although Martin Scorsese is not shown on the crawl with producer credits, he did play an early behind the scenes role with Phillips in bringing the film to the screen.

“Joker”, much more than any of the previous presentations of the character, is an art film, albeit an art film that is big enough to attract audiences that would ordinarily not be inclined to a more purely interpretive film without a marquee actor such as Phoenix.

Phoenix hits a crescendo with the fully, or nearly fully delusional Arthur Fleck. The mark of a movie that resonates beyond its time on the screen, is one that has you seeing the world through the lens of the lead character when you walk away from the room you watched it in – and that is what happens with Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker.

I only visit a movie theater a few times a year. I know what I am looking for in a movie that demands the space allowed by the big screen and there just aren’t that many in my estimation. This, I can tell you, is one you should consider seeing and if you miss it, it may very well be headed back to your movieplex for a return engagement come Oscar time.

Before I go, I earlier referenced Theatre Box, part of the TCL Chinese Theatre chain – the venue I viewed Joker in, located in the Gaslamp District in San Diego. Should you happen to be in town, this is a superb place to really get into a film, with its deluxe, recliner like seating and personal service.

The experience is unique compared to the larger chains. This would be like sitting in First Class, whereas  most of your other movie viewing habitats are like the Coach section. Most amazing is that the ticket prices are just a few dollars more than average for a vastly upgraded degree of ambiance and comfort.

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