“Is it just me or is getting crazier out there?” It’s a legitimate question that Arthur Fleck, a troubled clown-for-hire, asks the social worker assigned to his case. Garbage spills out on to the avenues and alleyways of the urban wasteland he lives in. The news is filled with stories about plagues of “super rats” and filth and crime and horribleness. You can’t even twirl a going-out-of-business sign in a fright wig without getting jumped by young punks and having the snot beaten out of you. One day, a real rain will come and wash all the scum of the streets. But until then, Fleck has to navigate this waking nightmare with only his meds — he’s on seven different types of pills to help combat a condition that causes, among other symptoms, uncontrollable laughter at inconvenient moments.
Oh, and he has his comedy. Arthur’s mom says her boy was born into this cursed world to put smiles on faces. So he’s decided to become a stand-up comic. He just needs a bit of sanity. Or at least some jokes. Ha. Ha. Ha.
Welcome to Joker, Todd Phillips’ self-proclaimed “bonkers,” tears-of-an-intellectual-property-clown take on an iconic comic character that wants very, very badly to refashion the giggling supervillain into God’s Lonely Bozo. Forget about the maniacal mugging of Ye Olde Jokers past, or the chaos-causing brainiac mastermind of the Dark Knight years. Arthur Fleck is a fucked-up antihero for our fucked-up times, even if the era onscreen resembles a vintage New Hollywood Grunge theme park. This is Gotham City as Horror City, a graffiti-covered throwback to the days when presidents told major metropolises to drop dead. (For the record, the story takes place in 1981, which we find out courtesy of an in-joke tweak on some classic caped-crusader mythology.) And in the middle of all the Seventies Scorsese cosplay is a tragic figure, pushed to the brink by a spiraling-out-of-control society that prizes celebrity over civility, screams over chuckles. Listen you fuckers, you screwheads — here is a clown would not take it anymore.
Is it an arresting sight to see Joaquin Phoenix, skeletal and smiling his way through sobs, slathering on makeup as a single tear streaks his mascara? Of course it is. The film is banking on the casting of one of this generation’s greatest actors to play the Batman nemesis as much as its brand-name recognition, and as with everything he’s ever done, the commitment to ugliness is 110-percent. His Fleck is a genuine sad sack, a socially awkward young man who lives with his sick mother (Six Feet Under‘s Frances Conroy) and has a tough time reading social cues. His fellow professional jesters pity him but put up with him. One of them gives him a gun for protection. During a late-night subway ride, when some Wall Street bros begin to get in his face, Fleck discovers his inner Bernhard Goetz. Gotham City finds a folk hero. And Arthur? He finds his true calling.
There’s also a potential romantic interest in Sophie (Zazie Beetz), the woman who lives down the hall from Arthur, and an imaginary father figure in the form of Murray Franklin, a late-night talk show host who’s the perfect amalgamation of authoritative Johnny Carson and crazy-snarky-cruel David Letterman. He’s played by Robert De Niro; any resemblance to The King of Comedy‘s Jerry Langford, or the subliminal sense of connecting the aspiring Fleck to Rupert Pupkin, is not coincidental so much as actively encouraged. Joker is a movie that doesn’t wear its influences on its sleeve so much as construct a garish purple suit out of them. While it is not “canon,” the movie is happy to borrow from the main character’s deep D.C. Universe backstory that we know and, er, love. There is a connection to Batman, one which will likely elicit fits of inappropriate laughter similar to Fleck’s Tourette’s-style outbursts. And whether you find the movie’s vigilante-worshipping protestors in whiteface to be an Occupy: Gotham movement or something closer to incel-igentsia trolls taking to the streets depends on how you choose to read it. He’s an outrage-culture cypher, a clown for all mad-as-hell seasons.
Phoenix is, of course, the animating spark, the reason that those who aren’t invested in watching this character go through yet another revisionist spin cycle should pay attention. There’s agony and sadness and madness lurking behind Arthur’s eyes, a ticking-timebomb volatility that’s the actor’s specialty. At its best, Joker gives this spindly, Method-y bull a stage on which to rage, and makes you feel as if the film actually does have more depth than a well-curated DVD collection. You can also feel it relying on Phoenix’s ability to do endless variation of this scene and exaggerated, theatrical dances and sell you a pathos-driven creepiness (or vice versa). Moviegoers will be amazed by his performance. They may also find themselves thinking of equally impressive work he’s done in You Were Never Really Here and The Master and Inherent Vice and Two Lovers, and maybe wish they were watching those films.
“Why so serious?” a wise madman once asked; Joker counters with a more pertinent query for 2019, “What’s so funny?” It’s trying to draw parallels to the world burning on the screen to the one ready to burst into flames outside the theater. “Nobody’s civil anymore!” Fleck laments, before perpetrating an act of nihilistic violence, and the movie wants you think of how that’s the new normal now. It prods you about every IRL story about mental instability and gun control, about social services failing those who need it most, about the blase rich and the incensed poor, about folks yelling so loud that no one hears each other. It answers the question posed at the outset: Yes, in fact, it is getting crazier out there.
What it never really answers is the question you may find yourself asking at the end of the sound and the fury: Why? Why tell this story though this lens, with this character and a haberdashery’s worth of Seventies-cinema hat tips? Yes, it’s a global brand, and a genre that guarantees blockbuster status, and gosh doesn’t all that grittiness and edginess seem cool. Yes, it’s the spoonful of I.P. sugar to make the wake-up-sheeple message go down, etc. Yes, it’s preferable to try and use this villain as a symbol through which to explore the car wreck of the Trump era than to just trot him out for more throat-slits and giggles But there’s the sneaking suspicion that, beneath all of its artfully smeared make-up, it really is the same old psycho-clown song and dance. Joker would like us to think it is a very profound statement about a big-picture descent into hell. No amount of festival awards can wash away the notion that the more you try to take it seriously, the more you feel like the joke is on you.