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“Joker”: The Day the Clown Cried and People Died

Joker!

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Every review of Todd Phillips’ controversial Joker that I’ve read so far — and I’ve read several, none of them by youngsters who love DC Comics unconditionally, but not all of them scathing — has name-checked Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy and Taxi Driver because, per their consensus, the homage is so derivative that it’s practically an attempted reboot of both, or possibly the conclusion to the trilogy they never were.

I haven’t watched Taxi Driver in over twenty years, and I’ve yet to see The King of Comedy, which wasn’t available on any of my streaming-service subscriptions as of a week before release. Aside from noting how hard I snickered at an obvious, neutered copycat of the famous “You talkin’ to me?” scene, that means I can’t simply spend 1500 words deriding its Scorsese allusions scene by scene, and will instead have to come up with my own words and thoughts, as opposed to typing a derivative homage to all those other reviews. IF it turns out like that anyway, don’t blame me. It’s everyone else’s fault but mine.

Short version for the unfamiliar: In an era no earlier than 1981 (a key film reference narrows down the time frame), Joaquin Phoenix is Arthur Fleck, a downtrodden, lower-class resident of Gotham City, which is totally not the same thing as Scorsese’s New York City except for all the parts where it cuts up NYC crime history into strips and makes papier-mâché out of them. Arthur lives with his retired mom (Frances Conroy from Six Feet Under) in a cramped Lower East Side apartment just as the young Penguin used to live with his mom on Gotham. He has a humiliating job as a rent-a-clown. He’s on seven meds daily and requires financial assistance to afford any of them. He struggles with an unnamed neurological condition that causes him to laugh uncontrollably at any moment, especially if there’s the slightest chance said moment will make things exceedingly embarrassing or get his face smashed in by an offended party.

This, then, is the story of how one guy from among society’s forgotten, ignored, invisible, pathetic, disposable hoi polloi undergoes agonizing trials that strip away his few remaining bright spots, spirals out of control, and eventually lands at rock bottom, whereupon he pulls himself up by his bootstraps by evolving into a heinous, chaotic, creepy, maladjusted, unsympathetic, psychopathic butcher who, over the course of 79 years, would become one of the most overexposed and overused super-villains in all of pop culture apart from arguably Lex Luthor and the long line of small-time crooks who won’t stop shooting Uncle Ben.

Make no mistake: Scorsese trappings aside, Joker is very much set in a DC Comics universe, albeit an Elseworlds with no overt continuity to any other DC works, unless Warner Brothers execs are so impressed with and enriched by its box office that it’s retroactively declared the official first chapter in an all-new DC film canon. But yes, the Wayne family is a presence, at least one longtime Gotham institution appears in primordial form, and…then there’s that ending. Don’t get me started on that ending.

Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Arthur and his mom love watching late-night talk-show host Murray Franklin, played by Robert DeNiro in a casting move boldly testing what happens when a Scorsese homage goes beyond “a bit too on-the-nose” and well into “punching through the hose and snapping the cartilage”. My son, who’s seen The King of Comedy, thinks it would’ve been awesome if DeNiro had explicitly played that same character here as a meta-sequel. One can pretend as much, I bet.

Zazie Beetz (Atlanta, Deadpool 2) is one of Arthur’s neighbors, who makes the beginner’s mistake of Being Nice to a Lonely Guy While Female. Also from the great and powerful Atlanta is Brian Tyree Henry in one scene as a hospital records clerk who gives out far more privileged information than he’s legally allowed to before he realizes he’s said too much and can’t legally give out information.

After Arthur commits his first murders, the homicide detectives on the case are Bill Camp (lead homicide detective from The Night Of) and Agent Carter‘s Shea Whigham, the patron saint of MCC’s “Hey, look, it’s that one actor!” guides. Comedian/acclaimed podcaster Marc Maron is Murray Franklin’s producer. Hannah Gross (Mindhunter season one) is Arthur’s mom in flashback. Glenn Fleshler (so good as the Chechen mob boss from Barry) is one of Arthur’s clown coworkers, whose one attempt at being nice technically makes him an accomplice to the citywide pandemonium of the film’s entire second half.

Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? Arthur has big dreams of becoming a stand-up comic, using a spiral-bound notebook to write down any punchlines or Deep Thoughts that he thinks might be worth sharing. One page has “JOKES” written at the top as a declaration of intent. What’s scribbled beneath them doesn’t live up to that promise. if you’ve ever had a friend who said they wanted to be a writer but then you peeked at their works, tried not to let them see you recoil, and made the conscious choice to give them polite, noncommittal encouragement instead of constructive criticism because the most honest and helpful response would be to beg them to go find a new dream to chase…Arthur is that level of wannabe gag writer.

Apart from the disturbing, bloody murders, the most painful scenes for an internet writing guy to watch were those in which Arthur, suffering from an acute case of the Dunning Kruger Effect, tries to use what he perceives as “talent” in the name of his big comedy dream. For anyone who’s ever succeeded but been stricken with impostor syndrome, or for anyone who’s been writing for years but hasn’t succeeded and hates to ask themselves “why not” in the mirror, Arthur’s struggles may strike a nerve. Eventually that discomfort subsides when his attention turns to other matters, by which I mean his increasing knack for casual brutality.

Going into the theater, I dreaded how Arthur’s quote-unquote “relationship” with his cute female neighbor might play out. Sometimes when a lady treats a loner nicely, even if it’s just for a split-second, many a loner will interpret the interaction as far more meaningful than the lady does, resulting in the dude letting his emotions getting carried away to an extreme. To my relief, Joker takes a more circuitous, less #MeToo-esque route to the end of their arc, which does not end with her becoming his sidekick but nonetheless captures what can happen when dudes raise their expectations into the stratosphere at the merest hint of kindness, failing to recognize that just because someone is nice to you does not automatically imply they’d love to hook up with you. This grave misperception is probably an intrinsic part of the secret origins of at least 64% of the bitter internet troll population.

Given his loaded background, Arthur isn’t at all equipped to cope when he’s subjected to a season of Job. Where Job found his way back to faith, Arthur finds the cold darkness of nihilism and violence. (It’s right there in the name — Arthur Fleck, a.k.a. “A. Fleck” as in an insignificant dot in the universe. Talk about on-the-nose.) He’s actually a sympathetic soul that you hope will one day get the help he needs, up until his inexorable march reaches the end of its proscribed route and pivots toward the murder-clown life.

Nitpicking? Most portraits of serial killers have a response ready to this, because decent humans should have a response to that dead-end worldview. Usually, murderer biopics are shot after the public achieves closure upon the event of their incarceration or death, so a Moral of the Story works its way into the narrative naturally. In a timeline where Batman doesn’t exist yet, two hours of downward spiraling land on Final Thoughts not much more than “All my evil deeds are everybody else’s fault but mine.”

The basic superhero story is all about the dance between the villain and the hero. Charismatic villains raise the stakes and provide a heightened entertainment experience, but it’s all the more satisfying when you get to the part where the hero knocks the smugness off the villain’s face. “Best Villain Ever” listicles are invariably filled out with villains who were not the stars in their stories. Sometimes when they’re graduated to the spotlight, the results are disappointing — e.g., the Hannibal sequel (the novel even more so than Ridley Scott’s adaptation).

Some stories where villains are the protagonist can achieve complexity with nuanced themes — e.g., Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood, Louis Bloom in Nightcrawler, or Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind. Some stories pit evildoers against an even more villainous antagonist — bad guys versus worse guys, as it were, such as with the Suicide Squad, the Punisher, Omar from The Wire, and other “antiheroes”, a fancy label for “villain protagonists, but still villains”. Some stories are about antiheroes actively seeking to attain the next level, chasing redemption for past sins by amassing good works in karmic balance — e.g., Angel and Spike, occasionally Deadpool when he’s in a mood.

Joker isn’t really about anything except making the Joker look and feel super cool. There’s a veneer of “Society sucks” posing as self-righteous condemnation, but it’s too equivocal a manifesto to call it a “side”, let alone find anything in it to debate. Everyone is mean now. Anyone with more money than me is the worst. If I’m unhappy, then humankind has failed and deserves my slaughtering. Everything is awful. Down with The MAN. Also, behold the copycats I’ve inspired who totally agree with me that Society Sucks and who make Team Fight Club look like Dorothy Parker’s Vicious Circle. Call them the Gacy’s Parade.

Comics and animation have historically conferred a certain unreality to his villainy. We recognized him as evil and knew he was a killer, but the lighter tone, occasional whimsical touches, and optimistic endings make for a safer, sanitary depiction of evil that we can stand to watch because we know we’ll get to revel in its comeuppance. Injected with an overdose of the grim-and-gritty, his acts diverge from the superhero genre and turn into straight-up horror…which seems to suit DC execs just fine. Horror is their primary Bat-property storytelling model these days, as brashly exemplified in Fox’s Gotham, which became increasingly sadistic over time and lost me midway through season two. Suicide Squad had glimmers of it in Jared Leto’s Jame Gumb-esque traipsing before he got drowned out by men’s-adventure light-show spectacle.

Different versions of a singular character across different media and/or played by different actors using different approaches can be a thing that works. But for a character who’s been part of my pop culture experience since childhood, my interest in extremist variations is dimming with age as they continue disconnecting from earlier renditions, particularly when they’re given a tacky red-carpet treatment. It’s not thrilling to watch all the other characters tiptoe with trepidation through their scenes while Joker does whatever he wants, elevated from oppressed everyman to snotty brat that the film spoils rotten once it’s done using him as a punching bag.

Arthur has a family secret revealed later in the film at which I began to facepalm until things took a wicked left turn in another direction. Fair points to the filmmakers for dodging what would’ve been a ludicrous development, but it’s superseded by a different revelation that helps send Arthur over the edge, an event that would’ve been thoroughly impossible at any point in the 20th century given his family’s circumstances. I’m tempted to add it here in ROT-13 code just to get it off my chest, but I’ve never been a fan of doing that, so I’ll just keep my mouth shut about it unless someone asks. Maybe in the comments?

On a minor note, Gotham’s skyscrapers look more generic than ever. The cityscape definitely isn’t cribbed from NYC. I assume they used Vancouver with light retouches?

So what’s to like? Arthur Fleck will be Joaquin Phoenix’s most memorable role for the rest of his career. More than Commodus, more than the kindly uncle from Signs, way more than the lonely Her dude, more than…uh, And The Rest. Phoenix lost dozens of pounds and apparently all his inhibitions in preparation for the role. To an extent his performance feels like Andy Kaufman performance art. He steps to his marks, gives in to whatever outrageous impulses take hold of him in the moment, and straddles the thin line between body-horror contortionist and Jim Carrey wacky stick figure. He consciously distances himself from the audience as piteous pathos slides into warped malevolence. Often it’s compelling; after a time it’s alienating; by the end his put-upon victim emerges from his chrysalis of rage as a pugnacious avatar of every guy who’s ever reveled in making everyone around them as uncomfortable and frightened for their lives as possible. Meanwhile the crew hides in a corner and points the cameras in Phoenix’s direction, recording every fleeting impulse he indulged, then compiled a two-hour highlight reel.

I might’ve liked this slightly more if it had been called anything but Joker, if it were an original work with no legal ties to any other intellectual properties, and if there were a more meaningful, fulfilling ending other than my imaginary mental image of Peter Falk’s Princess Bride grandpa closing his book of fables and telling the viewers, “…and that’s the story of how the Joker became an unstoppable killing machine responsible for thousands of hideous and inexcusable deaths, the star of every other Bat-film, a prized cash cow for Warner Brothers’ merchandising departments, and the inspiration for decades of kiddie toys!”

How about those end credits? No, there’s no scene after the Joker end credits, but ten minutes into the film I correctly predicted the end credits would be presented not in the common scrolling format but in static, flash-card style, a la the films of Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson, Woody Allen, and yes, Martin Scorsese.

The final credits also confirm the role of Gotham was played at times by our old nemesis Newark, as well as its alternate-Earth sister city of New York, which would explain how part of a red MTA sign shows up in one shot late in the film. (I didn’t see it in the finished product, but there’s also a real Brooklyn stop in the trailer at the 1:53 mark.) Unless some sneaky rascal traveled all the way to NYC, stole the sign, drove it back to Gotham, and hung it up just for fun. Darn those randomly mischievous jesters.

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