Main cast: Joaquin Phoenix (Arthur Fleck), Robert De Niro (Murray Franklin), Zazie Beetz (Sophie Dumond), Frances Conroy (Penny Fleck), Brett Cullen (Thomas Wayne), Glenn Fleshler (Randall), Bill Camp (Detective Garrity), Shea Whigham (Detective Burke), Marc Maron (Gene Ufland), Leigh Gill (Gary), Douglas Hodge (Alfred Pennyworth), and Brian Tyree Henry (Carl)
Director: Todd Phillips
Wait, so the director of Road Trip is capable of… this? Fascinating!
I’m sure most people are aware of the media-generated fake panic about Joker. Oh, it will get white men, especially those who can’t get laid, to start being violent! It will incite the mentally ill to be violent! Mind you, Joker’s female counterpart Harley Quinn is hailed by these same people as a feminist icon, which tells you all you need to know about why these people can’t be taken seriously.
Granted that the fake panic begins even before these people have seen the movie – mostly because they are likely paid by a studio to generate the drama, although whether the studio is Disney trying to kill movies from competing studios or Warner Bros trying to generate hype for the movie, I’d let smarter people decide – it is therefore a disturbing kind of realization for me that the very same attitude these “journalists” have towards white men and the mentally ill is the same one that generates the abuse heaped upon Arthur Fleck that eventually breaks him and turns him into the Joker.
Yes, Joker is basically an origin movie, only this time it’s about a villain instead of a hero, but it’s also a character study of how a mentally disturbed man reacts to an uncaring environment to the point that he eventually decides to lash out at a world that clearly doesn’t give a damn about him. He was a former inmate in a mental asylum who is now making a living as much as he can as a clown for hire, while dreaming of being a comedian like his favorite TV comedian-cum-talk show host Murray Franklin. He also tries his best to care for his mother Penny, who constantly writes letters to her former employer Thomas Wayne asking for financial assistance. That man, who is now running for mayor in Gotham City, naturally doesn’t write back. Arthur also develops a crush on Sophie, a single mother living in the apartment down the hallway.
Sadly, everyone and everything craps on him in this movie, like a festival of let’s-abuse-the-mentally-off-fellow antics, and this movie ends up being a very difficult one to watch. It’s insular, even repetitive, as Arthur keeps getting all kinds of abuse, even beatings and public humiliation, heaped on him from the opening scene.
If I have an issue with this movie, it’s how the constant abuse on Arthur soon becomes very artificial and contrived, sort of like the people behind the script are ticking off a list and coming up with increasingly awful ways to top the last abuse heaped on that character. Take an example: Arthur gets humiliated, then fired, then goes home to discover his mother being taken off to a hospital, and two police detectives interrogate him there and then in the hospital after revealing coldly that it’s their interrogation of his mother that caused the woman to be in her current condition, and then Arthur walks straight into a door much to the uncaring detectives’ mocking bemusement. All in the space of a few hours! When Arthur finally snaps and says that he’s been through a terrible week, I can only roll up my eyes. I know they want to make Joker as sympathetic as possible, but the constant portrayal of the people around Arthur as almost cartoon-like caricatures makes it hard for me to take this movie seriously.
Fortunately, Joaquin Phoenix is playing this character and he is glorious. While the script lacks subtlety sometimes, his Arthur is a beautiful work of fractured art. The Joker here isn’t a martyr, mind you – Arthur is emotionally needy and his lack of social nuances makes it very difficult for people to be kind to him, as poor Sophie will discover. In many ways, this fellow can be very hard to watch if you have to care for a mentally ill loved one, because it is all there: the way how you can try to be as kind and loving as can be, but it may never be enough for the person, because that person doesn’t think and feel like you. At the same time, watching others treat him like a punching bag or a nuisance won’t be easy either. Many people expect people with mental issues to pretend to be happy, and Arthur does his best to always smile and placate the people around him. Just as it can be hard for people who want to be kind to meet his expectations when it comes to love and affection, he finds it very hard to meet the expectation of other people. The fact that he has a brain condition that makes him laugh loud when he experiences uncomfortable emotions only makes it easier for other people to justify their abuse of him.
Mr Phoenix captures all these complicated, often tough-to-swallow nuances of the character perfectly. He has the tics and awkwardness of the milder-mannered Arthur down pat, and he is equally exuberant as the Joker. He plays Joker as neither a martyr nor a victim – he’s just a character, an equally fascinating and repulsive one, that will linger on in one’s mind for a long, long time.
Oh, and this movie also has political overtones as it underscores the malcontent felt by the poor in Gotham City over perceived injustices inflicted upon them by the wealthy. Let’s just say that Thomas Wayne doesn’t come off as very sympathetic here. In some way, one can assume that there are elements in this movie that are allegories to Antifa, the ruling political party, et cetera, which of course plays right to the popular perception of the Joker as a product of a broken system rather than simple evil villain. Rather than coming preachy propaganda to me, however, these elements come off as organic developments in the story line. I never get this feeling that I am supposed to support Arthur; instead, I’m like a passenger on the ride watching this character being broken down by circumstances and the people around him, and it feels cathartic to follow him when he lashes back violently.
If this movie is in any way dangerous, it’s because of how easily it works up the audience’s emotions and leave them squirming uncomfortably in their seats. Yes, Joker can be insidiously subversive – it neither moralizes or preaches; instead it encourages people in the audience to form their own judgment, even ones that could be considered wrong think by the left-leaning media that is calling for this movie to be eviscerated. You know what they say about people calling for an end of free will and free speech – if a movie makes them cry out for censorship, it is likely good for something.
With an actor in the lead role giving a performance of a lifetime, Joker is a sublime movie that will challenge the popular perception of what a superhero movie is all about.