How you like this new version “Joker,” depends on how you like your comics. If you like fantasy that departs from reality where a millionaire can be raised by his butler and villains can look like flightless fowl, then you won’t like this version. If you like a sanitized version of the world and don’t want to acknowledge collateral damage or real life issues like healthcare, look elsewhere. If you like a campy-for-kids cool of the Adam West TV-series, this version will feel like an assault on those memories. This “Joker” is a psychological thriller that exists in a grimy Gotham where garbage lines the street, graffiti defaces almost every public service and the mean streets are populated by feral men–poor or rich.
Coulrophobics steer clear, because this Joker isn’t the only clown around. Our protagonist, Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), works at a cheap, rundown clown agency where clowns get assigned gigs. Smiling doesn’t come naturally to Arthur, but laughter, unnaturally spills out of him due to a neurological condition. He carries cards to explain to strangers. Some are sympathetic, others are not. He’s been institutionalized before and sees a social worker who provides him with his meds. Arthur lives with his mother, Penny. At night, they watch television together.
Arthur’s favorite show is a late night talk show hosted by Murray Franklin (Robert DeNiro), a mean version of Johnny Carson and a tribute to De Niro’s role in another film: the 1983 “The King of Comedy,” Rupert Pupkin. In that film, De Niro was a mentally unstable stalker of a famous late-night TV host and comedian, Jerry Langford, who was played by Jerry Lewis.
Penny has hope, she’s been writing letters to Gotham’s major source of employment, Wayne Enterprise’s CEO, Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen). Sophie used to work for him and he’s currently running for mayor. (For this familiar with the Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens, there may be some message linked to “Blue Boy” and “Pinkie,” whose reproductions are prominently displayed near the television in Arthur and Penny’s apartment.”
At a sign spinning job, a group of young men steal his sign. Running after them with his oversized shoes and fluorescent green hair, Arthur’s more pathetic than funny. Following the five men into a dirty alley, he’s beaten up and his sign is broken into pieces. This isn’t the last time we’ll see Arthur lying on the ground in the fetal position being kicked.
Hearing about the incident, his co-worker, Randall (Glenn Fleshler), gives him a gun. What seems like a friendly, almost brother gesture turns out to be a betrayal. Arthur is fired and as he rides the subway, he’s attacked by three drunk sleazy businessmen whose first target, a woman, has already fled into another car. After killing two in self-defense with the gun, he then runs after the third and guns him down.
His private life is going better, seemingly helped by his new confidence, even though budget cuts have closed down social services and he no longer gets his meds. Arthur is romancing a single mother, Sophie Dumond (Zazi Beetz), who lives down the hall. He takes her to an open mike night where he has a rough beginning, with his neurological laughter severely hindering him. In the end, he wins over the audience and a happy Arthur is congratulated by Sophie. Clips from his show go viral and he’ll end up on the show of his hero, Murray Franklin.
The possibility of a new career in comedy won’t pay the bills and Arthur opens one of his mother’s letters to Thomas Wayne and learns that he’s Wayne’s illegitimate son. Yet Todd Phillips and Scott Silver’s script sets up further father-and-son conflict. As a mayoral candidate, Thomas Wayne has already commented against the unidentified clown who murdered his employees on the subway. The murder makes the unknown clown assailant a folk hero. Resentful disenfranchised members of Gotham dress up in Arthur’s image to protest. Yet what are they really protesting?
Phoenix gives an intriguing portrayal of mental illness, soaking up whatever intel he had or collected. I’m drawing from my own experiences here: I’ve lived with a person who went off her meds and stepped into a reality where she was arguing with her dead grandmother, nightly. I realized this when her loud arguments left the privacy of her room.
In this origin story, Phillips and Silver have intertwined the Waynes and the Joker, setting up the possibility of rich son versus poor bastard son in the future. As director, Phillips gives us the horrors of poverty and pores. With cinematographer Lawrence Sher, Phillips gives us close-ups that take full advantage of advances in digital photography. The grain is so fine that you can count the pores on Phoenix’s face, but such shots and so many of them may be something that only a dermatologist can love.
The unkind close-ups also bring up questions. For those who have worn the thick white grease paint, you’ll be wondering about the pore-deep cleansing ritual that prevented need of the pimple-popping doctor. For those observing the wrinkles mapping Phoenix’s face, you’ll be calculating the age difference between Phoenix’s Joker and Bruce Wayne (Dante Pereira-Olso). In real life Phoenix is 44. Dante Pereira-Olson is nine.
In some previous incarnations, Batman wasn’t that much younger than his nemesis. Christian Bale (Batman in the 2005 “Batman Begins”)was born in 1974. Heath Ledger in 1979. Yet for the 1989 “Batman,” there was a 14-year difference: Michael Keaton was born in 1951 and Jack Nicholson in 1937. In the TV series, there was an 11-year difference: Adam West was born in 1928 and Cesar Romero in 1907. That should settle the age question. Maybe some Batman film and TV experts already knew this. If not, the thought takes one out of the film magic.
Phillips has created a sympathetic portrait of Arthur who may or may not become the Joker. Perhaps Arthur is only the inspiration and that may lead to a sense of betrayal or it may be further intwined into a complex story. Phillips and Silver have created a dark world filled with toxic masculinity from the viewpoint of a victim who rises–pushed and bulled–to finally seek revenge and they raise issues of affordable healthcare and the treatment of mental illness.
You could see “Joker” as a warning about contemporary events. The level of violence isn’t excessive and the script supplies ample motivation. If you love Joaquin Phoenix you’ll want to check this out and if your fanatical fandom goes to the level of counting his pore, this is a must-see. Phoenix’s performance is disturbingly transfixing and depressing, but it may be the kind of Batman movie that best characterizes these Trumpian times–the unlikeable villain as the main character in a society heading toward disaster.