Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert DeNiro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy
Writer-Director: Todd Phillips
Running Time: 122 minutes
N’DIGO Rating: (*)
In the comic The Killing Joke, the Joker says about his own past: “Sometimes I remember it one way, sometimes another. If I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice.”
Well, this movie is one person’s version of the Joker’s origin story…and a disturbing POS version it is.
What a disservice this movie does to the iconic Joker, one of the coolest villains in all of superherodom, a character as enigmatic as his arch nemesis, Batman, himself.
There have been five live-action portrayals of the Joker and numerous other animated versions by a variety of actors and until now the constant in those performances is that the Joker is always one cool, cunning, supremely confident customer.
This is the first time the character has been interpreted as a flatout pitiable, weak-minded loser.
Mind you, it’s a given that the Joker is insane, but that’s always been in a megalomaniacal way. He’s insane, but he’s not crazy. The Joker in this movie is just mentally ill, unbalanced and deranged, and it’s sad to watch him in any enjoyable way.
You don’t sitting there wondering what kind of fiendish plan is he hatching up to thwart Batman; you sit there thinking, gee, this guy needs help.
“This guy” is Arthur Fleck, played by Joaquin Phoenix as envisioned by the film’s director Todd Phillips of The Hangover movies, who co-wrote the script along with Scott Silver.
Fleck is a poor schlub who lives with his mother in a rundown apartment building. He has a daytime job as a rent-a-clown who holds the “come on in” sign outside of businesses. At night, he aspires to be a standup comedian, but he is dismally unfunny.
A weak man, and not necessarily a nice guy, Fleck is generally beat up by the vicissitudes of life and stronger personalities. He is the butt of jokes and the object of pranks. He’s a mark. He’s not really a loner, but he’s alone. And he’s being overwhelmed just trying to maintain.
After being beat up by kids who steal his “come on in” sign, a fellow clown gives him a handgun to protect himself. Fleck carries the gun with him and one day as he is performing for sick children in a hospital, the gun falls to the floor from his pocket for all to see.
Arthur is immediately fired, then, still in clown uniform, is accosted on the subway ride home by several Wall Street frat-boy types. Fleck snaps and sets off a trail of violence that carries through the rest of the movie as Arthur in his clown makeup descends further and further into madness.
By the end, supposedly he has transformed into the Joker. THAT Joker. But no way in the world is this guy, in this movie, THAT Joker.
Even if he’s just in his fledgling stages, this guy doesn’t have the mental acumen to figure out where his next meal is coming from, much less the smarts to craft the cunning criminal schemes he’s known for. This guy couldn’t outwit the Robin from the Teen Titans cartoons, much less Batman.
Every other Joker has reasons for what they do. Cesar Romero in the Batman TV series and Jack Nicholson in Tim Burton’s movie with Michael Keaton as Batman were gangsters, with pure criminal intent behind their actions. Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight was the ultimate anarchist who just wanted to see it all burn. Even Jared Leto, mercifully just a small side storyline in Suicide Squad, was still shrewd enough to pull off a dramatic jail escape of his girlfriend Harley Quinn.
All of those Jokers were lethal; the Joker has always been lethal in pursuit of his goals. This Joker in this movie is terribly lethal, but only as a response to the hurts and slights, real and imagined, that he has suffered throughout his life since he was a physically abused child.
So he lashes out with violence. Unlike the other Jokers, there is no aforethought to this one’s malice, even as he is unable to differentiate reality from the things that are only going on in his mind.
This is not Joaquin Phoenix’s fault; he’s a good actor for what he’s asked to do. It’s the story that’s wrong; it’s the equivalent of watching the backstory of a guy who goes on a rampage, ripped from today’s sad headlines.
In an homage to the movie V for Vendetta, the citizens of this Gotham City take to the streets in violent rebellion protesting some kind of totally unconvincing “rich-vs.-poor and we can’t take it anymore” subterfuge. The film even makes Thomas Wayne – future Batman Bruce’s father – into a rich capitalist pig villain.
Another strange aspect of the film is its connection to the movie King of Comedy. In that picture, Robert DeNiro played an obsessed, unsuccessful comic who kidnaps his idol – a Johnny Carson-type – so that he can appear on his talk show and get the spotlight he seeks.
In this movie, Joker, DeNiro plays that Johnny Carson-type talk show host, whose show Arthur Fleck fantasizes about being on.
The one star I give this movie is for the way it amazingly and intimately recreates that old Tonight Show, from the set to the curtains the guest came out from, to Carson, sidekick Ed McMahon and producer Freddie de Cordova themselves. This is a little movie magic very nice to behold.
But this is a movie that turns Arthur Fleck, for all the carnage he has caused, into a cult vigilante hero. The last thing we need in this day and age is a film that makes a hero out of a mentally disturbed person feeling victimized who gets a gun and starts killing people because he can’t cope.
Joker is a project that never should have been greenlighted.
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