Saturday, January 25, 2020

Movie Reviews: Joker

directed by Todd Phillips
The mixed and somewhat negative critical reaction to Joker was in some aspects more interesting to me than the movie itself. Some people dismissed this movie because they, in my opinion wrongly, assumed that the film was making a politically sympathetic depiction of the type of predominantly though hardly exclusively Caucasian men who describe themselves as incels (involuntary celibates), stalk women, shoot up schools, or vote for Trump. 

That interpretation was so wrong that words almost fail me in rejecting that notion. I am old enough to remember when some "mainstream" commentators argued with a straight face that depictions of racialized violence in Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing would cause Black people to go crazy and start burning, looting and rioting just because of what they saw on the screen. Some people made similar statements about Joker

Although it's a mug's game to try to determine what people's purposes are when they make such statements, I think it's fair to say that for some critics, Joker depicts a certain type of person whom they despise not just on ideological grounds but also on existential ones. The joke, if you will, is on them. The title character is not ideological at all. He's mentally disturbed. And that is what drives all of his actions. He's not a mens' rights activist or a political ideologue who's sending pipe bombs to left wing activists. The character is beyond politics. 

The director, though he's definitely not beyond politics, seems to be bemoaning a failure of the social safety net in helping to create a man like the titular character. It's something that is more in line with a left wing approach than a right-wing one. 

Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) , the billionaire father of the boy who will become Batman, is coded as a right-winger and not a very nice one. 

Wayne's contempt for the masses of Gotham City seems quite, well, TrumpianAnd even the scene that some have pointed to the film's adulation of Joker and by extension an army of angry (white?) clowns, is less a scene of triumph and more a depiction of despair and cluelessness. I don't see how anyone could view that scene as the film saying that Joker is indeed a hero.

It immediately reminded me of Gloria Swanson's similar scene at the ending of Sunset Blvd. You can almost hear Joker saying that he's ready for his closeup. I wouldn't be surprised if Phoenix or the director watched that Swanson scene.

Basically, if you are viewing this film as political, or as only political, I think you are dangerously missing the point. This is a serious film dressed up in comic book drag. It is an origin story for Batman's best known rival, yes. 

But it is also a homage to and in some areas almost a rewrite of classic films such as Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy. It makes this explicit by casting Robert DeNiro, the star of both of those films. But make no mistake this film belongs to Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck aka Joker. 

Phoenix definitely deserved the Oscar nominations. He didn't just act. He became Arthur Fleck. The positive commercial response to Joker shows that despite the big budget special effects driven films sucking up most of the money and acclaim there is still room for an intense, character driven film to make money and win over audiences.

Arthur Fleck is a Gotham City (think NYC) man circa 1981 who makes his living as a professional clown. He does advertising, birthday parties, bar mitzvahs, pediatric cancer wards, anywhere that people need a laugh. He's also a would be stand up comedian. There's just one problem. As his mentally ill and physically challenged mother Penny (Frances Conroy) innocently asks him, don't you have to be funny to be a comedian? 

And Arthur is not funny. He's not very good at his job. He's bullied by his co-workers and people on the street. Making matters worse, Arthur suffers from various forms of mental illness. One manifestation of this involves involuntary laughing fits. The deeper issue is that Arthur simply can't understand people and so can't create jokes which resonate with folks. Arthur lacks life experience. It doesn't help that as his mother's caretaker he must dress and bathe her. Arthur expends a lot of energy trying to pretend that he's normal.

But Arthur is not a man to give up. His mother tries to provide an example of never giving up. Every day she orders Arthur to look for a letter from Thomas Wayne. Penny used to work for Thomas. She thinks Thomas will help them. 

In the meantime Arthur gets psychological and medical help from his social worker (Sharon Washington) and tries to get to know his building neighbor Sophie (Zazie Beetz). But Arthur's primary obsession is to get on Murray Abraham's (DeNiro) late night talk show. He's certain that if he can get on that show everything will fall into place for him. 

I don't think Arthur's setbacks, humiliations and losses make him heroic. As is pointed out there are many people who suffer worse and do not snap. Rather this film is a warning and examination of those people who do fall thru the cracks. It's hardly a glorification of their actions. It's also important to remember that most people with mental illness do not become violent.  

Again, Phoenix is the Joker. His painful looking weight loss, unfunny laughs, desperation, strange tics, confusion and occasional empathy all add up to an Oscar winning performance. The alienation and nihilism on display feel very 70s. This is a powerful movie that deserved its R rating. The violence is rare compared to film series like John Wick or Rambo, but it's far more emotionally intense. This is not a cartoon.

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