dir: Todd Phillips
Since, I think, Silence of the Lambs, there’s been this case to be made that we, as in audiences, are happy to make allowances for characters that do awful things on camera, as long as they’re compelling. Hannibal Lecter kept us hypnotised like the cliché about the cobra and the mongoose, trapped in his unblinking eyes, and we could not look away.
All these years later, and we’re still paying the price.
With that comes the argument about heroes, antiheroes, jerks and other lunatics, and it muddies the waters a bit. The Joker from the comics isn’t, at his base, a complex character. I know nerds nerdier than I can point to thousands of different versions of the Joker, each more demented than the last, but the basic fact is, when first created, he was someone ridiculous, camp and chaotic, and meant as the fundamental antithesis of the orderly, stoic, rich psychopath Batman.
He’s not a deep character. No amount of overwriting or depth of performance really makes up for that gaping lack. There’s a primary reason why the director and the production lean so heavily on the aesthetics of 1970s movies, because without it they’ve got nothing else. Joaquin Phoenix is a compelling actor, mesmerising, all those descriptive words, and he’s great as this character, honestly.
It’s just that there isn’t much there. It feels bad saying it, but there’s not as much ‘there’ as they would like us to think. Without the Scorsese ripoffs, the transparent Taxi Driver ‘homages’, the Death Wish / Bernard Goetz restaging, and the embarrassing Fight Club-lite insult to our intelligence, there’s just a creepy guy who laughs until it hurts, and who kills a few people.
The world of Gotham as conjured here has less to do with the comics, and more to do with the kind of New York that the movies tried to grasp in the 70s and 80s: a diseased, corrupt, heartsick and pungent place, where the great unwashed threaten to drown not only each other, but the wealthy as well. Social order is breaking down, the garbage isn’t being collected, services are being cut to those who need them most, and people dance on the stairs for no good reason. It’s purgatory.
In this feculent world lives a man, a put upon man, a downtrodden man with practically nothing to his name, which is Arthur Fleck, except the hope of being loved, by his neighbour, by his mother, by audiences, by the world. But he’s not likable, his dreams of being a stand up comic are perhaps premature, his hygiene is questionable, he has some kind of brain damage, and no-one can really seem to stand to be around him.
He holds a tenuous job as a clown who flips a sign to promote a “going out of business” sale, only some teenage rascals smash it and smash him too. Lucky for him, despite the fact that most of his co-workers can’t stand him, he keeps getting work, including a gig at a children’s hospital, which naturally he completely fucks up in a way that only points to a) the world not taking him seriously is probably the right approach and b) maybe he shouldn’t be cleared to work with children.
In his therapy sessions with a state mandated counsellor, for something he must have done wrong, she doesn’t really care, and he doesn’t really participate, other than to express his frustrations with the world, and its lack of taking notice of him and his bountiful merits.
But what merits does he possess? He wants to make people laugh, but mostly, at best, they smile politely at his efforts. Whenever something confronting happens, he starts laughing maniacally, and can’t stop, laughing until he chokes and is gasping for breath, which people find a bit disconcerting. He happens to carry around a laminated card that explains his condition, but any person who handed that to you, you would immediately assume they are a serial killer anyway.
He tries to be funny to kids, and their parents don’t appreciate his efforts. With a neighbour (Zazie Beetz, so great in Atlanta and Deadpool 2 as Domino, so completely wasted here) who has a kid, he seems to form some kind of relationship, as in, they spend time together, she comes to his standup performance, they make sweet sweet love right after he murders a bunch of yuppies.
But, and this is probably going to make you snort your breakfast bourbon out of your nose, it’s not fucking real. In a film where a guy does a bunch of stuff, a lot of which seems like it could be a hallucination, the bit that doesn’t make sense (even more so, because the thought of this old man anywhere near the neighbour character – ugh) isn’t even from someone else’s perspective (being ours, as the audience). It makes no sense at all, other than to just show that Arthur is even more disturbed than we thought. When they show a bunch of scenes that we “thought” happened, as in, they replay the scenes where we think she and Arthur are there together, they replay the scene as it actually occurred, which is Arthur sitting on his own. The scene where they don’t do this, of course, is the one where he shows up at her door and they start making out wildly, because then if they showed us the ‘real’ scene, Phoenix would have been making out with himself(?) Hot!
Ugh indeed. It’s cheap, a cheap and lame device, but anyway. As Arthur is getting pushed further and further towards his destiny, the city around him keeps getting crazier and crazier, like it too is building towards a particularly violent climax.
On the home front, where Arthur poorly and creepily looks after his mother, including sponge baths, if we weren’t weirded out enough, there is complex bullshit intrigue as well, involving what mother dearest Penny (Frances Conroy) has been feeding him for years about his ‘true’ parentage, as the eldest bastard son of none other than Thomas Wayne himself!
So now we’ve gone from ugh to ew. Penny has been telling Arthur, and pretty much anyone that will listen, that she had a fling with Thomas way back in the day, and one day Thomas will swoop in and lift her and her deranged bastard son out of poverty and into the lap of love and luxury.
Yeah. Sure. Whatever you say. The problem is, Arthur is delusional enough to believe her, and that’s not going to go well. And when he also finds out further ‘truths’, ones that he doesn’t remember, but which are conveniently written down in a file at, you guessed it, Arkham Asylum, he going to go even more bugfuckingly crazy and kill even more people. Well, more than the ones he’s already killed.
Well, see, that’s the thing. This very successful flick is not one people should point to in terms of a sensitive and considered portrait of mental illness, or how society treats those struggling with these issues. Mental illness is central to this flick, but it’s the depiction of it that amuses and delights audiences, where the mental illness of a character is used to justify why everyone else treats them like shit, and also as a justification / explanation for why the character loses their shit and kills a bunch of people.
It goes like this: Parental neglect, childhood trauma, lifetime of insignificance, a few more indignities, get mocked a bit, some unfair stuff happens, kill a bunch of people, become a hero to a bunch of clown mask wearing jerks who want to see the rich burn = box office gold!
And then they wonder why people were worried the film was going to appeal to those type of nuts who shoot up cinemas and festivals and schools and churches and synagogues and bridges and buses and – you know – where those people with all the guns go to achieve their feelings of relevance.
America is already there, though. There will inevitably be a shooter whose motivation is traced back to this flick, but this exists more as a symptom of this modern malaise, this crisis of masculinity that means a bunch of men, both on and off the screen, derive meaning through random acts of senseless violence, or targeted acts of specific violence.
This flick didn’t even invent that shit. But it does represent it, in all its loathsome glory.
Joaquin Phoenix, despite what a lot of desperate people would like you to believe, is very odd as this character. Very deeply odd. He does a bunch of odd things which I’m pretty sure weren’t written up in any script that anyone will ever track down a copy of. That doesn’t detract at all from the performance, but I’m not sure it adds a lot either. The strange dance that he does (not the ‘famous’ one on the Brooklyn steps, which is just dumb donkey balls), the weird affectless voice he uses, that strange and terrible interview he gives at the end on the set of The King of Comedy before killing Rupert Pupkin, the fact that he got emaciated for the role: All of these things guarantee that he will get an Oscar nomination, but they don’t make this a good film.
For all that this was going to be, as in, we were promised that there would be no Batman, they couldn’t fucking resist: not only to they have the same fucking scene in Crime Alley where Thomas and Martha fucking Wayne bite the big one as a horrified Bruce looks on, it’s directly implied that the wave of anarchy caused by the Joker’s rise is responsible for their deaths, thus creating his nemesis. I mean, we can’t have a Batman film, animated or otherwise that doesn’t have the scene, but this had to have it too? What the fuck, you lazy hacks?
So cheap and lame. In his defence, of the supreme hack who directed this film, I will say this: he knows something about darkness and immaturity. The Hangover films definitely outstayed their cancerous welcome, and as much as they’ve been used as easy punchlines for every time that lazy, unimaginative people get wasted and need a touchstone / reference point, they did try to point to a level of darkness in otherwise ‘normal’ people who feel driven to cast off the shackles of conformity through dangerous drug / alcohol use that serves to strip back the layers of civilisation to reveal the dark barbarian in our psyches that towers over all of us. Old School and Hall Pass are about people (men) uncomfortable with responsibility and obligation (and monogamy) who think the grass might be greener, but who ultimately decide to stick with what they’ve got. Because, reasons.
Joker is, about what, again? Oh, it’s about a sick guy in a sick world who does some sick things, and, it’s strongly implied, will kill lots more people, because that’s cool.
Cool. Cool cool cool cool cool cool cool our world is broken.
6 times don’t get me started on that dumb stairs scene – where the fuck is the music coming from, from his perspective out of 10
“My mother always tells me to smile and put on a happy face. She told me I had a purpose: to bring laughter and joy to the world.” – she sounds like a nice lady - Joker