Real world should only seep so far into the Joker's comic book universe

Joker. Directed by Todd Phillips. Starring Joaquin Phoenix. Rating: 7 (out of 10)

Joker was discussed and debated long before most of the people doing the squawking had seen it.

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The supposedly incendiary film from director Todd Phillips – heretofore best known for his Hangover bromances – forces us to pick sides, so we’ve been told. By seeing the film we’re condoning the film’s over-sympathetic look at the type of disenfranchised white male responsible for most of the shooting sprees in the U.S. (including the 2012 Aurora, Colorado, shooting at a screening of Batman film The Dark Night Rises). But boycotting Joker is censorship, and censorship of any art form based on its moral position or likelihood to inspire violence is a slippery slope toward creative suffocation.

The fact is, Joker is a good film, not a great film. It’s a booming entry into the DC Comics universe, a credible backstory for one of its most beloved villains, and a standalone character study that should satisfy fans along with those who have never seen a film in the Batman canon. But it’s simply not important enough to shoulder the burden of potential violence from every hate-filled misogynist, member of the incel community, or frustrated loner who goes to see it.

The story is set in 1981 Gotham, a rat-infested, graffiti-ridden, city of squalor not unlike NYC in the same timeframe, but a far more contrived cesspool of misery. Among the miserable is Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a clown by day and failed comedian by night. He lives with his ill mother (Frances Conroy) and dreams of appearing on a Johnny Carson-style late-night show hosted by Murray Franklin. Franklin is played by none other than Robert De Niro in a role-reversal from 1982’s The King Of Comedy (De Niro is felt onscreen even when he is absent: Joker is beholden in no small part to Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy for much of its content).

Arthur has a propensity for uncontrolled laughter at the most inopportune times. He has a catalogued collection of cackles and giggles. This gets him nowhere socially, especially with the single mom (Zazie Beetz) who lives next door. Rejected, kicked out of counseling, and victimized in a beating, Arthur’s long-gestating violence breaks through. 

The film is topical: not just from the white-male angst as a source of mayhem, but also in the social movement Arthur inspires after his first outburst of violence. The hopes of the Occupy Wall Street and We Are the 99 Per Cent movements have been buried under the clownish politics of the current White House administration, so a cinematic uprising against authority and the social elite is well-timed. Less comforting is the film’s kind of beck-and-call response to the #MeToo movement: this is why we are the way we are, say those like Arthur, we can’t help ourselves.

“With great power comes great responsibility,” said Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben, quoting Voltaire. If you were still of that mind going into the film, then the last 20 minutes will further challenge your fears about copycats, fears that have resulted in increased security at Joker screenings, a beefed-up police presence, government warnings, and a statement from Warner Bros that: “It is not the intention of the film, the filmmakers or the studio to hold this character up as a hero.” 

But then there’s Phoenix’s performance. The actor claims to have lost 52 pounds for the role, and his thin, hollowed-out features suggest Arthur is too depressed to eat. His face and body contort as though possessed, he sweats and cries and suffers, and laughs, of course. Those fans possessive of Heath Ledger’s performance in 2008’s The Dark Knight, for which Ledger won a posthumous Best Supporting Actor Oscar, should be gratified by the fact that Phoenix appears to commit all to the role. Talk of an Academy Award nomination is already everywhere. The role itself, however, fails to connect, feeling more like pomp and posturing than a real-world study of mental illness.

But that’s how it’s meant to be. This is a comic book, after all: the real world should only seep in so far. See Joker, or don’t see it: just don’t make any sweeping statements before you do.

Twitter: @juliecfilm


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