My whole life people didn’t know I existed; now they’re starting to notice.
I finally got around to seeing Joker last night.
My confessed tardiness to this pop cinema campfire was, and very much remains, boredom if not utter disinterest in any movie about a comic book character, a superhero, or a spaceship. Batman, Superman, Spider-Man Iron Man….if “Marvel” is listed in the credits, I am — the invisible man.
But now, we’re stuck in the age of COVID, addicted to Netflix, and even curmudgeons
like me are changing our stubborn habits, and besides — there’s more television to watch right now than any one person can possibly digest in ten lifetimes.
So, Joker appeared on my streaming feed, and finally, my curiosity slew the dragon of prejudice. Oh, I should also mention — someone ponied up $150 for me actually write a review of the movie and post it on my website (true story). “Will work for food” and even compromise my principles — if the price is right.
Meet Arthur Fleck
Joker is a movie about the transformation of a simple human being who’s trying his best to exist in an inhumane, impersonal, imperfect, poisonously pornographic unfair world. It doesn’t just pull back the curtains on mental illness so much as rip them off the wall. Behind the wrinkled cloth, we find a lonely and vulnerable man staring helplessly and hopelessly into the lens, a victim whose life has passed him by and now distant. Finally, he reaches his breaking point.
We meet Arthur Fleck who lives in Gotham, a fictionalized rendition of New York City during a garbage strike, in 1981. Our anti-hero resides in a seedy graffiti-plastered tenement building struggling to make a living as a party clown. He does low-paying gigs all over town, from spinning “going out of business” signs on sidewalks to cheering up kids inside a cancer ward. Fleck, the lovable loser, even with his glaring flaws, battered and broken by life, is largely sympathetic. Gazing outside of smudgy windows on buses we see the reflection of an empty man capable of so much more. Indeed, for those of us who have struggled mightily, at times — in careers, in love, and in life — we all have a little Arthur Fleck, a.k.a. Joker, inside us. We all have our breaking point.
Fleck’s life takes one bad turn after another, through no fault of his own. He’s robbed. Beaten. Humiliated. Fired from his job. While watching the vestiges of humanity slowly evaporate around him with every setback, I was reminded of another film, Falling Down (1993), starring Michael Douglas, a similar character portrayal of a seemingly “crazed killer” who is slowly prodded off the moral and ethical cliff not out of decisions he made, but rather because he is desperate and had no other place else to go.
When Fleck kills his first victim (actually three victims) in a random act of violence on a subway, we see him taking control for the first time. Up until these murders, Fleck had always followed others — his mother, his boss, any authority. He’d played by society’s rules, even though he had no voice in creating them, believed in the system, and it got him nowhere. He’d been a pawn, about to be rooked and captured in a chess game he didn’t much know how to play. After blasting multiple slugs into the torsos of three rich Wall Streeters who are on a drunken binge, Fleck manages to win a small victory. It’s a fleeting moment of satisfaction, a tiny measure of justice, temporary glory in an inglorious existence. He’s in control and the rush is intoxicating.
“My whole life people didn’t know I existed; now they’re starting to notice,” he tells a social worker.
There’s some debate about the condition of the psyche, still unresolved apparently in academics, about naturing versus nurturing. Joker makes a compelling argument that many criminals, killers, mass-murderers, even psychopaths aren’t so much born as they’re created by stormy surroundings and a cruel society. They’re molded by forces outside the mind and the body — parents, co-workers, associates, friends, romantic partners, even the guy on the street we don’t know by name. One day, one act at a time, slowly, like stones wearing down by the powerful forces of the waterfall, over time, we’re sculpted by those things which shape us, and ultimately make us who and what we are.
Joaquin Phoenix in the title role is every bit as riveting as the rave reviews he received from film critics and the Oscar for Best Actor he collected at the last edition of the Academy Awards. Phoenix, his onscreen persona boosted by his quirky offscreen reputation as a nonconformist with an affection for the unconventional, seems not only at ease in the Joker’s skin; he’s made the character all his own.
“They don’t give a shit about people like you, Arthur,” the social worker replies. “And frankly, they don’t give a shit about me, either.”
The Point of No Return
Predictably, Joker is a dark and sometimes troubling film to watch, though it’s also an illumination of shadows we often chose to ignore. It’s exfoliation in an art form of the phony veneer that separates not so much rich versus poor but, those who flourish within a chaotic psychological dystopia at the expense of all its victims and outcasts.
Out of work, impoverished, and desperate, Fleck (Joker) tries to perform stand-up comedy in a small nightclub. Although he’s done his homework and the effort is sincere, he’s terrible. Plagued by a rare mental affliction that triggers uncontrollable laughter during inappropriate moments, Fleck is a walking, breaking, ticking time bomb. Reminiscent of yet another film, Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy (1982) — which stars Robert De Niro, who in this film plays a Johnny Carson-like role — Joker slides deeper into the crevasse of no return and ultimately goes beyond reactionary to premeditation. I’ll be vague on this point so as not to spoil the ending for those who haven’t seen it. However, for those who remember De Niro’s role as Rupert Pipkin, a lunatic loner obsessed with a talk show host, the parallels will be obvious.
Unfortunately, the script and the story take an annoying detour, which largely evaporates the audience’s goodwill. Although he’s become a murderous clown, we’re so caught up in his condition, that we’re rooting for some consolation. We don’t know exactly what we want — for the Joker to be caught or killed or perhaps continue on killing bad people who deserve to die. So, we watch and wait, anticipating some conscientious resolution.
The unnecessary departure detracts from a fascinating meltdown when Fleck thinks he’s the illegitimate son of a rich power baron who refuses to acknowledge the long-lost relationship with his mother. Again, without revealing more that might spoil the movie, the final scenes with acts of graphic violence seem gratuitous. And pointless.
The first half of this movie sets up a fascinating premise, then the final half fails to deliver.
Grade: 5 on a 10 Scale
The shift to a more serious character-driven psychological thriller by Todd Phillips, best known for directing the comedy trilogy, Hangover, seemed like a natural progression. The core of a great film was here. But Phillips’ script (co-written with Scott Silver) gradually loses steam and becomes a one-man showcase for the thespian talents of Phoenix, and little more.
Joker has ephemeral moments of greatness, but not enough of them to overcome an aimless plot. Phoenix’s best moments are not as the crazed Joker on various killing sprees, but rather the vulnerable void of a man with a blank stare, looking nowhere in particular, desperately seeking something to latch onto which will give meaning to his life.
I too, wanted this film to have some greater meaning, and although I was transfixed for moments, as the final credits rolled to the swansong of Frank Sinatra’s baritone version of the Stephen Sondheim classic, “Send in the Clowns,” I was disappointed there wasn’t more depth to this shallow portrait.
Joker is a film I cannot recommend.
My takeaways are:
- Joaquin Phoenix can carry any movie, even with a weak script.
- I remain correct in my negative assessment of movies made about comic book characters.
- I just made $150.