“Joker” is no laughing matter

“Joker” stars Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck in a performance that’s generated both controversy and awards-buzz. Photo courtesy of Warner Brothers Studios.

“Joker” has no answers.

The big screen has seen it before: the people of Gotham are growing angry, confused, and disillusioned with a city overwhelmed by crime, rat infestations, and corruption. The news pits a restless underclass against a complacent upperclass in an unfair polite society. And the Joker brings all the fervor to a breaking point.

The controversy surrounding this blockbuster film is not new either. Critics denounce the film for its portrayals of violence and for its alleged racist, menacing treatment of black women characters. “Joker” director and co-screenwriter Todd Phillips has been condemned for criticizing political correctness. Positive reviews defend the film as a chilling character study. Several government agencies have issued warnings about the film’s potential to inspire violence or to serve as an occasion for more mass shootings, and theaters have voluntarily banned or regulated audience attendance for similar reasons. Despite (or maybe because of) those warnings, the film broke a box office record on its opening weekend. So, with cautious curiosity, I saw the film twice.

“Joker” is billed as an origin story for the D.C. villain of the same name. The film exchanges the fantasy magic of the superhero genre for gritty realism, detailing the apparent decline of Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a beaten-down clown for hire and aspiring comedian who finds daily living to be more than a sisyphean effort. 

We learn in an early scene between Arthur and a cold, calculating social worker that Arthur has a debilitating neurological disorder that causes him to laugh when he feels sad, depressed, angry, etc. Presumably, Arthur has other diagnoses – he’s on seven different medications related. He lives according to a disjointed philosophy about how the world works. He wonders whether he even exists. All he has are negative thoughts. People don’t notice him. He’s the victim of a cruel and uncaring world.

Arthur lives with and takes care of his ill mother (Frances Conroy), who invests all hope in the famous Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), her former employer and wealthy mayoral candidate who promises to save the poor from the trappings of unemployment. Between work and his mother, Arthur idolizes the late night talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), who has a role in Arthur’s decline. Arthur develops a romantic interest in a single black mother who lives down the hall. Arthur’s work, his mother, and both their idols are the major forces at play here.

All these parts of Arthur’s life conspire to drive him to vigilantism. With time, many slights from strangers and neighbors build pressure on Arthur’s feeling of having been unjustly discarded by society. He’s an untrustworthy, unworthy freak – an outsider. When he finally breaks and returns the volatility the world has shown him the audience is meant to feel that he’s been brought to a last resort, or consumed by his disorder.

Arthur turns out to be the critical flashpoint for the unrest in Gotham – each time he lashes out, chaos in Gotham worsens and Gotham’s institutions begin to unravel. Once he comes into himself as the Joker, Arthur cannot be contained. Free of restraint, he dances through the streets like a self-possessed marionette, reveling in a newfound superpower: hedonistic nihilism.

“Joker” is a fun-house-like film that plays with reality using contradictions and deceptions and outrageous implications. Extended, outlandish subplot sequences turn out to have been Arthur’s fantasies, and by the end it’s clear that long stretches of the film may not have been the real story. The viewer is left to wonder what’s actually happened. 

After seeing “Joker” a second time, it remains clear that this film wants its audience to sympathize with a monster going about his daily life by observing him in personal situations which gradually depart from what might be relatable. At work, conflicts with co-workers turn into a string of violent first degree crimes. Flirting turns to stalking and trespassing. At the dining room table, Arthur unwinds from the day by shutting himself in a refrigerator, a literal example of Arthur’s habit of taking stigma personally. His worldview would be pathetic and juvenile were it not a danger to himself and others. Arthur is not a well man, and the film reflects this in innumerable ways.

Some people enjoy films that leave their audience with more questions than answers. “Joker” asks questions and muddies the waters as an excuse to not evolve its star character. Its premise is summarized well in a line Arthur repeats: “I had a bad day.” Apparently, all it takes to drive someone “crazy” – totally wild, unhinged, lawless – is a really, really bad day. And, for particular people, this revenge is okay.

The film is lazy storytelling, if not an argument against morality at all. It could be argued that the film represents the Joker’s worldview. Fair enough. But what good comes from empathizing to the degree the film does with a shooter, not the casualties? Or the innumerable examples of people who survive far worse and do not rampage? Unchallenged and alone, the film’s philosophy makes for fragmented, incomplete cinematic storytelling and grotesque social commentary. Please send the clown away.

As a piece of entertainment, the film drags on. The first time around, it’s confusing and depressing, actively demotivating and cynical, and not much better on the second. Visually, it’s nauseating, full of blurred backgrounds and green light, and frequently catches on Phoenix-as-Fleck in closeups staring into the void. Phoenix uses his rare acting ability to hit many poignant notes, but his performance is stricken out by the film’s long and convoluted attempt at crafting a psychological narrative. Audience members grounded in a healthy sense of the world and their place in it may only be saddened by this abusive narrative; one figures out that none of the optional “real” narratives necessarily account for everything in the film. Eventually, the viewer quits the quest for understanding before it becomes an obsession.

If nothing else, this Joker is a resilient bag of bones; he survives two beatings, being hit by three cars, and intense psychological pain. The filmmakers batter him about, kicking his can down the road. Why?

Because, as Frank Sinatra croons in the movie, “That’s life.” Funny, innit?

MPAA Rating: R

Run-time: 2 hrs 1 min.

Score: 1/4 stars

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