Wanna know how I got these (O)scars?…
Joaquin Phoenix is unpredictable, funny, disturbing, and when you meet him, he might just kill you. In JOKER, he won the 2020 Oscar and Golden Globe for Best Actor… But was he really acting?
JOKER, like STEPHEN KING’S IT, shows clowns for what they really are: insecure, unbalanced, traumatized sociopaths. Again, was Joaquin Phoenix even acting?
Joaquin Phoenix plays Joaquin Phoenix in JOKER, a movie that follows—no, wait… Joaquin Phoenix plays Ben Affleck in JOKER, a movie—no… Joaquin Phoenix is Arthur Fleck (i.e. A. Fleck!?) in JOKER, a movie that follows the origin of Batman’s sauciest nemesis, yet tells us nothing about the origin of Batman’s sauciest nemesis! Movie Maniacs, if you thought JOKER would solidify canon on Bill Finger’s most unhinged arch-villain, you’re in for a Joker-like conundrum. We never do figure out whether the tales of Arthur Fleck’s childhood are true, or the rantings of a disturbed woman, or the coverup of a rich man.
Arthur works as a clown for an agency in Gotham, a city seething with discontent; no jobs, filthy streets, citizens walking a tightrope of subsistence and destitution, crime rampant. And for the first time, a movie about crime isn’t satisfied with showing thugs robbing grocery stores as a shorthand for “crime,” instead, clearly links the policies of politicians (taking away healthcare, corporate corruption, etc.) to the people suffering on the streets, showing how the upper classes cause the rise in lower class crime.
Arthur visits his therapist and laments, “It’s getting crazy out there.” Now I don’t usually like the term “out there” to represent society, because it’s too amorphous, but in this movie, writer Scott Silver and co-writer/director Todd Phillips show all those small things that gradually wear you down to bare wire, brought about by the rich tweaking society so that the wealth runs uphill to them.
The moviemakers have crafted an homage to that classic 1988 Batman graphic novel The Killing Joke, in which The Joker sneers, “All it takes is one bad day to reduce the sanest man alive to lunacy,” then goes about trying to make that bad day happen for his protagonists. JOKER uses Dinah Washington’s song What A Diff’rence A Day Made to imply the same concept, then goes about making that bad day happen to Arthur himself, to drive him over the edge into Joker. The villain in 80 years of comicbooks is the protagonist here. There are other allusions to Killing Joke: Arthur trying to break into the world of standup comedy; and the Alan Moore-penned line, “If I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice.”
Arthur lives with his old mother Penny (Frances Conroy). The intimacy in their relationship raises the hairs a little (as we see him bathe her, and waltz with her); she is at that advanced age that makes her feeble of mind and body, so we are on the cusp of being heartened and disturbed with Arthur’s care. He uncovers something secret she wrote to the billionaire who owns Gotham, Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen, who was in DARK KNIGHT RISES as a congressman); something about “your son” needing help… Stealing his mother’s records from Arkham State Hospital (back before it was Arkham Asylum), Arthur discovers she suffered from “delusional psychosis and narcissistic personality disorder” (same condition as Dumbo Donald!)… So… is Arthur the son of Thomas Wayne? Which would make him Bruce Wayne’s half-brother?! Or is Penny Fleck hallucinating?…
From outside the high locked gate of Wayne Manor, Arthur cajoles a young boy to come closer – until a fit young man named Alfred drives Arthur off the property, while telling the boy, “Get inside, Bruce!” — Did we just see what we thought we saw? The first meeting of The Joker and Batman? We did! We did taw a puddy tat!
Zazie Beetz (DEADPOOL 2) is the girl next door, whom Arthur starts a tentative relationship with. But again – did we just see what we thought we saw?
Comparison with Heath Ledger’s cataclysmic clown prince is inevitable; like Heath, Phoenix puts his everything into this character, not only frying his body mass to play this sinewed, literally twisted, agonized outcast, he also adopts a timid mien, replete with twitches and stutters and a stoop-shouldered, sunken-chested carriage. Adding to Arthur’s insecurity, he has a condition where he laughs uncontrollably (mainly during times of anxiety), and Phoenix has made this Tourette-cackle his very own flesh-crawling thing.
Mark Hamill’s cartoon Joker might possess the best unbalanced guffaw, but Phoenix’s painful unbidden yowls send chills up our spines. When privileged yachtniks bully Arthur on the train, we see terror on his face, not just because he knows his incongruous laughter will make them mock him more fiercely, but that his jowls seem to ache as they contort his face against his wishes.
And when Arthur attends a comedy show to take notes (following his dream to be a standup comedian) he forces laughs which are decidedly vapid when he spies other people laughing around him – meaning he can’t actually laugh at funny, only cackles uncontrollably at pain. What a performance! And when Arthur actually embraces his destiny and shoots his oppressors – note the subtle foley effect of the ringing in his ears! – that cackle while he’s crying inconsolably!…
Uh… Heath Who?…
Let’s talk THE KING OF COMEDY. Rupert Pupkin is here, playing Robert De Niro. He wanted to be just like Jerry Lewis, and now he’s got his own show! De Niro is Murray Franklin, a smarmy unfunny vanilla talk show host (so basically, ‘a talk show host’), whose national show Arthur desires to perform on, so much so that he fantasizes he is singled out by Murray in the audience and brought onstage.
Much of this movie flirts with fantasy, so subtlely that some theories suggest this whole movie is taking place in Arthur’s head. We have to believe there is some bedrock “reality” to this tale, otherwise what’s the point in having a plot or throughline if it’s merely one step above Patrick Duffy in the shower?
We imagine De Niro must bear some modicum of respect for Phoenix, for morphing his body in a way similar to that of De Niro’s in RAGING BULL (1980). Phoenix is shriveled here, but just last year, he was bulked up for YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE (for which he won Best Actor at Cannes).
Arthur’s admiration of Murray turns to bile when Murray shows a clip of Arthur at an open mic night, trying to squeeze out his jokes between gales of pain-laughing, with Murray mocking him, calling him “a Joker.” Thus, Arthur decides then and there he wants to be just like Robert De Niro in TAXI DRIVER and kill a buncha fools.
The meta threatens to eat us alive.
JOKER is set in 1981, but it feels like earlier (with its street dressing, its fashions, Thomas Wayne at a screening of Chaplin’s MODERN TIMES), but then the writers make a giant sociological mistake that makes it seem like today.
Who films open mic acts in 1981?
This most outlandish plot point is the catalyst for Arthur’s violent denouement. Which means the film’s climax was predicated on a concatenation of events that could not possibly have existed in 1981. Let’s say someone does film open mics in dive bars (to eke out new talent), why are they sending this particular performance to Murray’s show? There’s no hook – just some guy bombing hard. Why would Murray ever bother to broadcast it on a national TV show? And if he does broadcast it, why mock this obvious nobody? Why was Murray punching down to these subterranean levels? Was there no other news of the day to make jokes about? Except this novice who had not yet honed his craft? Any host who allows this unfiltered dreck on his show deserves a bullet to the head.
THIS IS 1981. When your dad had maybe bought a VCR but was at least 2 years away from buying a VHS video camera. This is not the sick social media climate of the 2010s (where everyone films everything Just To Watch The World Burn). So which fanatic with a portable video camera is filming Arthur? Or is it Murray’s crew, scouting open mics with their broadcast cameras? And if so, why rail on a reject?
It’s like the writers are so immersed in the spineless cancel culture of modern times that they can’t conceive of a time when people had better things to do than bully strangers on video. The tragedy is that modern audiences don’t even see this plot point as a misstep, because they too cannot conceive of a simpler time when wasting videotape on such mundane nothingness would have been the height of reckless stupidity. Nowadays this kind of dunderheaded idiocy is called the United States presidency.
They look like the stairs from THE EXORCIST (in Washington DC, Prospect and 36th), but they’re in The Bronx (Anderson Ave and West 167th). And they’re One Big Metaphor. Arthur ascends this massive flight of stairs on his way home every night, stooped shoulders, head bowed, like the workers in METROPOLIS rising from the Depths with no hope. Denouement: Arthur is Joker, in full makeup and costume, Gary Glitter song on soundtrack (a controversy in itself), as he dances devil-may-care down the same stairs. He fluidly moves in an arrogant flourish, willfully, joyously embracing his Dante-esque descent into madness.
Arthur strides through the train station, smoking, looking more like Ledger with every step. Why? Because all through the movie, his gait has been gimped and cowed, except when dressed as a clown or dancing. Now, he has embraced his demons and cast off all doubt. And for the first time in society’s glare, he holds his back straight, purposeful – and STRIDES. His shooting of the yachtniks at this very station cast him as a mysterious vigilante hero for the downtrodden. Since he was witnessed in clown makeup during the incident, his copycat admirers adopt identical clown masks when rioting against the derision of the Top 1% in the film’s catastrophic climax. Movie now resembles V FOR VENDETTA in more ways than one – the sea of masks, worn for the same reason – to rebel against the hubris of the upper class.
JOKER resonates because it hits the raw nerve of America’s class struggle, bubbling under for decades, brought into the daylight with the Wall Street crash of 2008, and continuing to the present with the sneering 1% becoming more openly contemptuous of the lower classes as time passes.
Who knew that a Batman villain – the clown – would become the perfect icon for the lower classes? We came to realize the Wall Streeters’ attitude towards us when those avaricious, hubristic one-percenters continued to brazenly embezzle America’s money after being bailed out by American citizens! The filmmakers tapped into this synergy, with Thomas Wayne condemning the rioters as “clowns”….
… and in real life, actor Alec Baldwin (coincidentally, originally slated to play Thomas Wayne, and a staple on SNL playing Dumbo Donald), voiced his opinion of the Felicity Huffman jailing (for buying her daughter’s way into college), “The demonization of wealth in this country is mind-blowing!” Don’t be coy now, Alec! It’s not the demonization of wealth per se, it’s the indignation that the working class feels toward the attitude of the wealthy, who, like Thomas Wayne, look down their noses at those less fortunate as “clowns.” Mitt Romney, 2012 presidential contender, went a long way to perpetuating this indignation, implying it was somehow a choice to be poor. Until in 2016, Dumbo Donald exploited his perceived wealth to wholly undermine not only the working class, but democracy itself: ignoring subpoenas, embezzling, kidnapping, money-laundering, obstructing justice, buying judges, committing treason, violating every oath his office is beholden to, from the Emoluments Clause to Protecting the American people from all enemies foreign and domestic – he being the biggest domestic threat of all… and was protected from legal consequences by the wealthy. Thus, wealth has become synonymous with corruption. By their very actions, the wealthy call the working class “clowns” every single second of every day without actually saying the word.
Made for $70 million, JOKER shows us what superhero films could be: devoid of outlandish special effects, with an R-rating, no cavalcade of bootylicious stars wearing enhanced pajamas, yet still a compelling and award-winning tentpole movie (Oscars, Globes, BAFTAs), and on its way to grossing $1 billion.
And it doesn’t even have to be canon!
JOKER brilliantly tap-dances across 80 years of comicbook canon, yet never mires its foot in anything other than ambiguity.
For example, the film gives us that massive Easter Egg of Arthur trespassing on the Wayne Estate, coming across a young Master Bruce – a boy that looks about 12 years old. Arthur can definitely pass for 42, so let’s say they have a clean 30-year difference in ages. So when Batman is 29 (as per the classic Silver Age comics from the Jim Aparo/Dick Giordano era), Joker should be 59, yet both he and Batman look around the same age in those panels. This movie would offer no clarification for our misty memories.
Another tap dance: amidst the climactic riots, Thomas Wayne, his wife and their son leave a cinema, avoiding the melee in the streets by turning down an alley. A rioter in a clown mask follows them… (Remember Tim Burton’s BATMAN said explicitly it was The Joker himself that killed Bruce’s parents? Well, this movie accounts for the clown visage due to the Joker fever in the streets!) But in this infamous scenario, the motive of the mugger here is not just simple robbery, as it has been played out a thousand times in the past. In Thomas Wayne’s family, the mugger sees his malefactors – the 1%! – those piranhas responsible for his downcast role in society, and further, how they are blithely trying to avoid getting their feet dirty on the class struggle erupting around them, by sneaking down an alley. Thus he follows. To enact a small class victory. Pearls are snatched and go flying. Screams. Gunshots. The man and woman fall. The boy is spattered with blood. And now we see a compelling reason for Bruce to be spared – the mugger saw no reason to kill the boy for the sins of his father… Gee, I hope that kid isn’t too traumatized and grows up to be a well-adjusted young man…
As well as the old school lilt of Dinah’s song, JOKER also utilizes two songs made famous by Sinatra – Send In The Clowns (and I find it striking that in this movie about class struggle, the opening line is, “Isn’t it rich…”), and That’s Life, because this movie is truly about the life of Joaquin Phoenix.