‘Joker,’ despite muddled message, succeeds as character study

Posted 10/11/19

CN+R Film Critic Neil Morris' Review

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‘Joker,’ despite muddled message, succeeds as character study

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Joaquin Phoenix stars in 'Joker,' an adaptation of the comic book villain of the same name who has served as Batman's top villain in several films over the years.
Joaquin Phoenix stars in 'Joker,' an adaptation of the comic book villain of the same name who has served as Batman's top villain in several films over the years.
Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.

There’s a scene in “Joker” when a theater full of tuxedoed socialites gather for a charity screening of Charlie Chaplin’s “Modern Times.” As the fat cats cackle, it’s striking to see one percenters appropriating and reveling in a Depression-era film that skewers the oppression wrought by industrialization at the expense of the working everyman, a film branded as liberal propaganda and communist-leaning in its day. It’s a brilliant juxtaposition. It’s hard to know whether to laugh or cry, and the most impressive element of Joaquin Phoenix’s performance as the titular, iconic villain is that he manages to do both at the same time. “Joker” itself, on the other hand, often just wants to have it both ways.

Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) lives with his mother (Frances Conroy) and is afflicted with not just “bad thoughts,” but also a neurological malady that triggers loud, spasmodic laughter during moments of stress. It’s an embarrassing condition, and Fleck’s public outbursts after usually laced with sobbing. Fleck is a literal amalgam of both Thalia and Melpomene, an intriguing interpretation that positions his internal tension as the source of Joker’s madness.

Fleck’s affliction has pigeonholed him as a party clown, a job that periodically makes him a target of derision and even physical attack, and a job he loses due to his erratic behavior. Meanwhile, Fleck’s tortured psyche also parallels the plight of a growingly downtrodden society, where haves like billionaire mayoral candidate Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) sanctimoniously placate and preside over the growing have-nots.

“Joker” succeeds as a layered, even contemplative character study in the context of a comic book origin story. Phoenix gives his all to a performance that occasionally feels overdone, but mostly stays true to the film’s evolutionary intent. Director Todd Phillips deliberately renders the milieu—including some deep-seated mommy issues—that might give rise to a homicidal clown villain. It’s the proper perspective to consider anytime the film grasps for greater meaning.

Indeed, the film’s missteps are threefold. First is a useless subplot involving Fleck’s affection for a young mother living down the hall (Zazie Beetz) that’s clumsily written, not believable, and utterly pointless. Second is its rank derivation. A filmmaker could do far worse than ape Martin Scorsese, but Phillips isn’t subtle about it. Fleck is Travis Bickle and Rupert Pupkin rolled into one. As in “Taxi Driver,” a coworker gives Fleck a fateful firearm, he points his misdirected ire towards a politician running for election, and his violent actions are misinterpreted and misappropriated by a gullible hoi polloi. Like in “The King of Comedy,” Fleck is obsessed with becoming a famous entertainer like his favorite Carson-esque late night talk show host, Murray Franklin, who is played by Robert De Niro, naturally.

“Joker’s” politics is where matters become murkiest. Wayne calls those who celebrate Joker’s violent vigilantism “clowns,” thereby spawning a backlash, a not-so-distant echo of a pejorative used by another politician to brand foes during our last election. Indeed, the lemmings inspired to action by Joker’s example deify and place their misguided faith in a psychopath whose motives are purely self-obsessed and apolitical. On the other hand, the clumsiest analog occurs during a mass protest held by Joker-inspired acolytes, when protesters wearing clown masks hold up signs reading “Kill the Rich,” “Wayne = Fascism,” and “Resist.” Phillips tries to make some larger statements about our culture (including a swipe at the modern-day arbiters of comedy); his political metaphors are pointed and intentional, but they’re also scattershot and conflicting.

The criticism that Phillips is celebrating, justifying, or inspiring the actions of a violent antihero are misplaced. Other than one act of self-defense, it’s patently clear that Fleck’s escalating actions are the bloody, inequitable reprisals of a budding narcissist. To borrow a line from the last Joker film, Fleck just wants to watch the world burn. He finally finds purpose by surrendering to his fate and becoming his manic embodiment of a depraved world gone literally mad. That’s just fine and dandy as the tale of how Joker was born. As for the rest of the muddled messaging, the joke’s on us.


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