Joker is a grim story of a failed comedian in search of a new act
"Do they owe us a living?" went the famous song by anarcho-punk godfathers Crass. They didn't let the listener linger long before answering that question: "Course they do." The song came out in 1977, just a few years before Todd Phillips' Joker is set. It was a time of social unrest and "economic anxiety" as the Western world slid into a recession before the backlash post-civil rights agendas of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher were put into place. That anthem of class warfare doesn't share much aesthetic DNA with Joker, but its sentiment is the same. Yet there is a potential darkness lying underneath that sense of rebellion, a self-serving narcissism that is all the more dangerous when it finds the vehicle of ideology.
The character of the Joker is certainly the most iconic comic book villain of all time, and one who has gone through many screen itinerations. Jack Nicholson played him as a party-loving cartoonish Al Capone in Tim Burton's Batman. Heath Ledger played him as a 2000's era terrorist with no goal other than sewing pure chaos. Zach Galifinakis even did a comically delicious satire in The Lego Batman Movie. Jared Leto played him as...well, let's just not talk about that. Each version of the Joker has taken liberty with the character and somewhat adjusted him to the climate in which the film was made. So it makes sense that Joaquin Phoenix's 2019 Joker would be an emotionally unstable white man, with no clue of how to function as an adult in an uncertain world, who rages at a society that has supposedly left him behind.
Phoenix's Joker is named Arthur Fleck- A grown man living with his sick mother (Frances Conroy) in a grimy Gotham apartment, in 1981. Arthur makes a living as a clown for hire, either spinning signs outside of businesses or making visits to children's hospitals. Arthur visits a social worker for therapy and medication management, who helps him with his "condition,” a sudden, involuntary laugh that goes on even when inappropriate, triggered by stressful situations or moments where he may find himself rejected. As a man with no real social skills to speak of, Arthur winds up in that situation a lot. Yet he loves to make people laugh and smile, even if he's not very good at it. Every night, he watches a late night talk show hosted by Murray Franklin (Robert DeNiro), a savvy Johnny Carson type who Arthur idolizes. He imagines what it would be like to be a guest on Murray's show- even more, he sees Murray as almost a father figure, as Arthur's father is notably absent, and his identity unknown. The problem is that Arthur doesn't understand other people, and understanding people is key to making them laugh. He attends a comedy set at a local club, and takes down notes of what seems funny to others, as if he is an alien from outer space. Yet, as Arthur endures one failure after another, his attachment to being seen, known, and loved, at any cost–much like Rupert Pupkin (played by DeNiro) in Martin Scorsese's The King Of Comedy–only intensifies.
One late night on a subway, he stumbles into a situation where, feeling forced to act, he surprises himself–and Gotham's reaction surprises him too. Much like Taxi Driver's Travis Bickle had dashed dreams and failed promises that led him down a path where violent infamy seemed the only viable end, Arthur discovers his own kind of infamy. But through this, could it be that he finally discovered his own original act? From this moment on, Arthur seems renewed with a sudden sense of purpose and identity. He's no good at playing normal or bringing joy to others through relatability. This isn't to say he isn't relatable- he is, very much- but the relatability is in the feeling that society doesn't care about him- symptoms that are felt by thousands more living in the gutters of Gotham.
Suddenly, a movement is born–Arthur is its new anonymous, mysterious leader, and his makeup–his mask–becomes the symbol of Gotham class warfare. Does Arthur really care about this? Does he have a critique of capitalism in mind? No. As he says later on in the film, he "doesn't believe in anything." But those who are angry, with legitimate grievances, just need a little push to join his army of the abandoned. If they are the gasoline, Arthur ends up providing the matches....and who is on the other side but Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen, who also played a minor role in The Dark Knight Rises), the billionare philanthropist? Arthur's mom used to work for the Wayne estate; in this version, he is not the benevolent saint of Gotham City that he has been in the past. Instead, he is a rich, out of touch schmuck considering a run for mayor (he seems like a stand-in for Trump, but in reality seems more like a Michael Bloomberg).
Despite the many flaws, there is a lot that absolutely works, even if only from a technical perspective. Phoenix is a shoe-in for an Oscar nomination, if not the front runner. Cinematographer Lawrence Sher follows up his impressive work in Godzilla: King Of The Monsters with breathtaking photography, and he has impressive set design to work with, capturing a Gotham City that looks like Snake Plissken would have to fight his way out of. Perhaps the true star is cellist and composer Hilda Guonadottir, an Icelander who is fresh off work on HBO's Chernobyl. Her score is immediately mournful and dour. If the score in Nightcrawler effectively recreated psychopath Lou Bloom's delusional hopefulness, this score effectively recreates Arthur's inner hopelessness–it sounds funereal. And as Arthur's actions escalate, it remains dark and fatalistic, perhaps offering a kind of moral judgment on his choices and behavior. It is fairly constant, and could be scaled back 10 or 20 percent–but it sets an unquestioning mood.
Todd Phillips' vision of this world feels like a mirror to our own–no matter how warped. Much of the political and social commentary feels muddled and not very well thought out. Arthur seems like the kind of person who would go to full MAGA mode, but here ends up becoming a part of something that looks more like Antifa. There are no real racial politics to speak of, as race is still that cultural hot potato that most big movies try to avoid at all costs (to be honest, I am glad it is sidestepped here). Instead, Joker becomes a story of battle between the haves and the have notes, not too different from The Dark Knight Rises. Phillips is certainly no Scorsese–and doesn't make it clear that he understands the implications of the story he is telling–but he admirably punches far above his weight class, managing to land a few direct hits. It is this writer's belief that it's not the artist's job to offer hope, or even a solution. There are neither of those things here. Joker is a disturbing movie. You SHOULD feel disturbed by what you are seeing. But beyond that, what you see in this snapshot of Gotham is up to you.
In the end, Phillips may have been the perfect choice for this vehicle. As a director of a string of brutally unfunny bro comedy movies (Old School, the Hangover trilogy), he may get what makes the masses laugh, but is not skilled in the art of subtlety. Fortunately, the character of Joker is about as subtle as a killer in clown makeup–in addition to actually being brutally unfunny as well. Joker is itself NOT a funny story, though it may eventually seem that way to Arthur. So even if he ends up seeing his life as a joke that nobody else gets, we know that it's no comedy. Just a tragedy turned into a horror show.
Stray Observations (with light SPOILERY material)
-Another interesting feature of Joker taking place in 1981: it is one year after Mark David Chapman shot and killed John Lennon, and the same year that John Hinckley Jr. shot Ronald Reagan in an attempted assassination. Both were troubled white men living with mental illness, who sought fame and infamy. Hinckley himself was obsessed with Taxi Driver, another Scorsese film with its DNA all over Joker.
Speaking of mental illness, the movie treads wearily on the right wing talking point that it's mental illness that is responsible for violence in society, not the widespread availability of guns. Fortunately the movie is smart enough to kick back at that- Gotham's mental health programs, as insufficient as they were, get the budget axe. You can't blame violence on mental illness while also cutting back on mental health care and not expect people to see through your bullshit.
Arthur's weapon of choice? Simply a revolver with some bullets. Ledger had high tech weaponry and Nicholson had the whole mafia, but it makes perfect sense that today's version of this villain would simply be an angry loner with a gun. Yet look at all the madness that it inspires; this feels like one of the film's smartest choices.
Other movies beyond the Scorsese ones that influenced Joker: there are strong shades of Network, One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, as well as a bit of American Psycho.
Despite it not being a comedy, there are a few parts that made me laugh. One moment in particular, made me feel like an asshole for laughing, but I did anyway. It's as if Todd Phillips himself jumped out of the screen, looked right at me and said "gotcha!"
There are some obligatory Batman references, and a young Bruce Wayne is indeed a character. Fortunately, the movie makes the wise choice of not setting up a future film where this Bruce will grow up to take down the Joker head on, but of one where Bruce will grow up to fight the very madness that spawned someone like Joker in the first place.