Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) lives a miserable life of failure and desperation. He’s a clown for hire, working out of a dingy office in Gotham City with several other men that dress up as clowns. On one of these jobs in front of a business that’s closing, Arthur’s “Going out of Business” sign is stolen by some teenagers. He chases them down an alley when they jump him and beat him up. Arthur lives in a small apartment in a rundown building with his mother Penny (Frances Conroy). Penny sends letters to her former employer, Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) of Wayne Enterprises, asking for financial help to get out of their circumstances. Arthur meets a neighbor that lives on the same floor, Sophie (Zazie Beetz), and is immediately smitten by her, even following her to work the next day. Arthur and Penny like to watch a local talk/variety show hosted by Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro). Arthur is seeing a counselor and receiving medication to help his depression and a neurological condition that causes him to laugh uncontrollably at inappropriate times. Arthur is trying to become a standup comedian and performs at a local club. Between his laughter condition and his bad material, Arthur bombs. However, the club videotaped the performance and sent it to the Murray Franklin Show where Franklin mercilessly berates Arthur on the air. Arthur is performing as a clown at a children’s hospital when the gun he’s carrying for protection falls out of his pants. He tells his boss it’s a prop gun, but he’s fired. Arthur is riding home on the train laughing uncontrollably when he’s attacked by three Wayne Enterprises employees. He shoots and kills all three men and runs away. The police come to interrogate him as witnesses saw a man in clown makeup running away from the scene, but he isn’t home. They talk to Penny, but she has a stroke and is taken to a hospital. Thomas Wayne calls the person that killed his three employees a clown, starting a backlash against the wealthy and powerful of Gotham City, with a clown mask as a symbol of rebellion. So many people called the Murray Franklin Show about Arthur’s standup, Arthur is invited to appear on the show. Arthur’s mental state is deteriorating as secrets come out and revenge is planned.
“Joker” is that rare comic book movie that focuses on the villain. Back when Andrew Garfield was Spider-Man, Sony had plans to make a villain-centric movie about several of Spider-Man’s enemies called “The Sinister Six.” Spider-Man would have made an appearance, likely at the end to stop whatever nefarious plan the team had, but that movie was cancelled with the lackluster box office performance of “The Amazing Spider-Man 2.” What sets “Joker” apart is the lack of a hero to fight against him. The stage is all his and the Clown Prince of Crime does not disappoint.
Joaquin Phoenix is an actor that can wrap himself fully in a character, even disappearing into himself for his faux documentary “I’m Still Here.” In “Joker,” Phoenix nearly physically disappears as he lost over 50 pounds to play the role of a man invisible to society. His maniacal laugh and usually dead eyes show us a man with a short rope that got to the end of it a long time ago. Phoenix plays Fleck, and ultimately Joker, as a man from which one doesn’t expect brutal violence. Fleck’s killing of the Wayne Enterprises workers appears to surprise even him. The first time he fires a gun, by accident in his apartment, one could easily expect from his reaction that Fleck would swear off ever touching a gun. Violence becomes easier and easier for Fleck as the movie goes on and you can see Arthur becoming more comfortable with his brutality. Violence gives him power that he’s never had, and he becomes enamored with his death dealing. Despite the bursts of violence and uncontrolled laughter, Phoenix delivers a controlled performance, teetering on the edge of camp and madness, but pulling back to keep Arthur Fleck grounded, even as he’s losing his grip on reality.
The story for “Joker” is also very different from most comic book movies in that there are no heroes, and I don’t just mean no Batman. None of the characters are heroic in any way. Arthur’s mother is an unrealistic dreamer waiting on Thomas Wayne to rescue them. Thomas Wayne is a stone-cold capitalist with very little concern for the welfare of Gotham City’s downtrodden. None of Arthur’s co-workers are really his friends, apart from a little person that manages the office. Murray Franklin is only concerned about how Arthur can be used as a foil for his insult-based comedy. Even Sophie, who is friendly towards Arthur, isn’t exactly what she seems. With no Batman swooping in to save Gotham for at least 15 years (we see a young Bruce Wayne a couple of times), Gotham is on its own with apparently no one willing to save it.
“Joker” is rated R for strong bloody violence, disturbing behavior, language and brief sexual images. Three men are shot to death with significant blood. A character is stabbed in the eye with a pair of scissors. A character is smothered to death. Another character is shot in the head and chest. A mob overwhelms and attacks to police detectives. Arthur’s fits of laughter can be very uncomfortable to watch. He visits Arkham Asylum for information and rides an elevator with a person strapped to a gurney, screaming and struggling. I don’t recall anything sexual in the film unless they are talking about when Arthur goes to Sophie’s apartment and kisses her. Foul language is scattered.
“Joker” premiered at the Venice Film Festival where it received the Golden Lion, the festival’s highest honor. There was talk of Phoenix winning a best actor Oscar for his portrayal of a man that’s sinking into madness. Then the fear of violence similar to the Aurora, Colorado shooting at a midnight showing of “The Dark Knight Rises” began to surface (Note: Joker isn’t in that movie but the mentally ill young man that killed 20 people and injured 70 more appeared to be emulating the character with his orange-dyed hair). Then there were comparisons of Arthur Fleck to incels. Then an email to Army members warned them to be careful if they went to see the film and make sure they were prepared should violence occur. Then some critics began to pan the film for what they considered its sympathetic portrayal of a killer. Then director Todd Phillips made a statement that he gave up making comedies because it was so easy to offend people and social media’s cancel culture. Things spun out of control and most of it had little to do with the movie. It’s a good movie that mixes a classic comic book character with real world issues of socioeconomic inequality and a lack of mental health care in this country. I realize in the world of getting clicks and driving traffic to an advertising-supported website, there’s a pressure to post things, write things, print things that are designed to create controversy and encourage arguments. If there was ever an example of that kind of journalism and criticism, the writing about “Joker” is it.
“Joker” gets five stars.
Three new movies this week are hoping you are in the mood for animated Halloween-adjacent fun, some clone action and smartphone operating system that runs your life even more than the one you have now. I’ll see and review at least one of the following:
The Addams Family—
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