JOKER: All this Movie HAS is Negative Thoughts

The gags are hilarious! Just kidding. This is a pretty damned dark movie.

Joker, Warner’s attempt to look into the origins of one of their most iconic characters, has received more than its fair share of attention in the press recently regarding… well, a few things. One of the less controversial points of “discussion” has been the various parallels to some of legendary filmmaker Martin Scorsese’s early work. The fact that Joker director Todd Phillips has made a number of homages to Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy (both starring Robert De Niro, who shows up here playing a reversed version of his character in the latter film) hasn’t been lost on anyone who has seen either of this movie’s well-crafted trailers. One would then expect Joker to be a sort of greatest hits of the aforementioned titles in every aspect of its existence. But Joker surprises by being a contradiction of a film at every turn it can. It implements some of the above-mentioned themes, yet manages its own voice. It’s an accessible film as well as an affecting one. Finally, much like the titular figure, Joker may be nothing that hasn’t been seen before, but remains striking and unforgettable nonetheless.

In Joker, the lonely, isolated Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) spends his days working as a clown-for-hire while taking care of his ailing mother Penny (Frances Conroy). Arthur can claim a number of troubles in his life, including a need for medication relating to mental health issues, a crush on his next door neighbor Sophie (Zazie Beetz), and a crippling disorder which causes him to laugh uncontrollably. Still, Arthur dreams of making it big as a comic, with popular late-night talk show host Murray Franklin (De Niro) serving as his idol. However, in a city which is being overrun with crime, a stripping away of social services, and a fast-moving descent into urban hell, Arthur slowly finds himself realizing that his form of laughter could very well be the best form of medicine.

For long stretches, Joker tends to play out more like a character study than the upfront origin story most would understandably assume it to be. While one of my pet peeves when it comes to movie reviews is the act of comparing the movie being reviewed to titles of the past, I just can’t help myself here. Throughout Joker, I couldn’t help but recall American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) and how in a way, his acts were a reaction to his own existence as dictated by the city and decade he lived in. Arthur strikes a similar chord in the way he sort of proclaims his right to exist through the violent acts he commits. Far beyond the image of a hunter on the prowl, Arthur’s outbursts are a reaction to a society in which he doesn’t really feel he belongs and is reminded so each time he tries to get a handle on it. Additionally, much like the 2007 Jodie Foster-starrer The Brave One (in which a woman goes on a vigilante spree after her fiance dies following a violent attack), Arthur is not looking to incite chaos or any sort of political movement, but instead is using violence to find his voice and his reason for being. Many have claimed that this specific ideology exists within Joker as a means to sympathize with Arthur. Make no mistake; there is nothing to sympathize with when it comes to the character. The acts he commits are heinous, without question; as is the backstory which guides him there. What Joker does try and do, however, is at least attempt to understand the mind that Arthur finds himself in.

The most prevalent factor contributing to Arthur’s madness (beyond any inherited traits) is the city he calls home. The world of Joker may be Gotham, but there’s no denying that it’s 1970s New York City serving as the backdrop for this story. With overly-polluted streets, peep show theaters galore, and crime running rampant, Joker shows a city that’s gone just as mad as its main character. Callousness and depravity flow throughout most of the city, with many reveling in the toxic atmosphere alongside those folks just wanting to be left alone so that they may hopefully survive. Meanwhile, the upper classes either acknowledge the crumbling city’s state of existence by making flimsy promises of hope, or pretend that those below them don’t exist whatsoever. Phillips does a good job of capturing what living in such a city is like by bringing to life a wasteland that contains an odd beauty with rich, dark muted colors and an appropriately grimy feel. Lost in the thick of this world is Arthur who, like most, is merely trying to cope with the what he naturally is and what the city has helped turn him into. Through its landscape, Joker perhaps gives us the quintessential example of institutional rage and how the spiraling madness of the city has the ability to seep into an individual’s bones before ruthlessly swallowing them up.

Most of the positive buzz around Joker lies in the brilliance of Phoenix’s work. The fact that thrice-Oscar nominated actor turns in another breathtaking performance should surprise no one remotely familiar with his career. Yet so rarely has he ever been this subsumed by a character than the way he is with Arthur. Pheonix beautifully goes for broke (in a concentrated way) during the more outrageous moments, while honing in and dissecting the character’s fractured soul in the more pensive ones. Much like Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman, Phoenix’s Joker aims to not necessarily justify the character’s actions, but rather explore the mentality behind them. The rest of the cast gets understandably lost in the shadows (as if they had any other choice) as Phoenix commands the screen. Yet Beetz and Conroy do manage some lovely moments as two very different women existing as products of a crumbling metropolis, while De Niro has a blast as a Johnny Carson-like talk show host who feels his status and persona has made him untouchable and oblivious.

For those who don’t know, Phillips controversially won the top prize for Joker at the Venice Film Festival recently, kicking off the maelstrom of debate about the villain-driven tale. It’s the most prestigious win of the director’s career to date, but that doesn’t mean that this effort isn’t without its rough spots. As mentioned, every side character seems to get a few telling moments of their own, but is ultimately given his or her short stick, as is the case with a few too many key scenes. While Phillips would have done well to let a number of scenes play themselves out, a few more moments watching Arthur attempt a successful comedy routine would have helped gain a better, more involving insight to the way he sees and copes with the world. The Batman tie-ins are certainly clever, especially one in the film’s finale which is positively jaw-dropping and changes the cinematic game as most fans know it to be. But Joker is ultimately a success by the way it takes all the evidence surrounding Arthur and asks: Is it his delusions that make him truly crazy, or the time and place he and his mental state have found themselves in?

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