Monday November 25, 2019
Movie Review: Joker (2019)
Joaquin Phoenix should get an Academy Award nomination for the laugh alone.
Early on, we learn that Arthur Fleck has a condition that produces involuntary laughter, often to situations that don’t warrant it. Something depressing or tragic happens, and the laugh comes. And it’s not welcome. Arthur chokes on it and gasps for air afterwards. He’s pained. It’s reminiscent of the way most of us throw up. This Joker isn’t laughing like an insane criminal mastermind; he’s vomiting laughter.
Phoenix should get an Academy Award nomination for the run alone. We see him running a lot in this movie—toward violence, away from violence—and it’s often desperate, gangly, comic. It’s a chin-high, knees-high gait. Even when he’s wearing normal shoes, he runs like he’s got clown’s feet.
Phoenix’s Joker is small, scrawny, timid. We wonder how he’ll become big enough to inspire fear. Then he does. Then he is.
It’s a “worm turns” movie. Is that a problem? We tend to root for the worm in those, and the worm here is a killer—Bernie Goetz in clown makeup. Bigger question: If they do a sequel, and it’s far enough along in the storyline that Bruce Wayne has become Batman, will we root for Batman? Or will our allegiances still be with this guy?
Some people get their kicks
At the start, Arthur just wants to bring joy into the world. Unfortunately, he lives in Gotham City circa 1981, which is like New York City circa 1981, which basically means murder, assault, porn, general lawlessness.
Arthur experiences it daily. He works for the oddest temp agency in the world—a cramped, second-story walk-up that farms out men dressed as clowns to hospitals, kids parties, etc.—and one day he’s spinning an “Everything Must Go” sign outside of a decrepit business when some punks knock him down and steal his sign. When he chases them into an alleyway, they beat the shit out of him. Later, the boss asks him why he left his post, and where’s the sign, and well I guess he’ll have to take it out of his paycheck then. Arthur accepts it all with a laugh. That’s life.
It’s certainly his life. He tries to make a kid smile on the bus; the boy’s mother berates him. He tries to talk to his therapist/parole officer, but she’s just going through the motions—her life sucks, too—and eventually he tells her “You don’t listen, do you?” We’ve all seen the Joker’s masterful dance down the stairs in the trailer and on the poster, but what makes it brilliant is the prologue: trudging up those same stairs at the end of another sad, hopeless day. At the top is a sad, cramped apartment he shares with his shut-in mother, Penny (Frances Conroy of “Six Feet Under”), and together they heat up meals and watch a low-rent talk show host, Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), who’s neither funny nor accessible but is somehow beloved, and whose theme music is “That’s Life.” Arthur loves him. He’s who he wants to be.
Cringingly, Arthur tries his hand at stand-up and doesn’t seem to understand what a disaster he is. Nor does the audience. Does it applaud? WTF? He also begins seeing a single-mom neighbor (Zazie Beets), but this seems off, too. She’s way above his pay grade, and when he acts oddly she simply smiles her beautiful smile. Eventually we realize the applause and the relationship are all in his head. He’s delusional. His stand-up routine is so bad, in fact, it becomes a running gag on Murray Franklin’s show. Murray, his hero, mocks him, and as he watches, behind Arthur’s eyes you see steel go up, with a flame behind it.
Arthur’s delusions are like his mom’s, who keeps insisting that her former employer, billionaire Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), will save them. Because? Because he’s a good man, she says, and he cares about them. Arthur discovers the true reason in a letter: He’s Thomas Wayne’s illegitimate son. Batman and Joker half brothers? Nice twist, I thought, and it leads to a supercreepy scene at Wayne Manor. Arthur, standing outside the gate, talks to like a six-year-old Bruce (Dante Pereira-Olson) and urges him closer. Between the bars, he lifts Bruce’s mouth into a gum-heavy smile. An unnamed Alfred (Douglas Hodge) swoops down and breaks it up, but that’s a helluva first meeting between superhero and villain. Particularly since there are still sympathetic elements to Arthur. It’s sad to watch him on the outside—the unwanted, outcast son.
Except it’s a lie—or another delusion. At Arkham Asylum, Arthur gets the records on his mom and discovers: 1) he was adopted, and 2) she used to beat him so severely he became developmentally disabled. So he’s not the son of American royalty; he’s the fucked-up kid of a fucked-up mom.
Is he too sympathetic? His worm-turns moment is like Bernard Goetz but without the racism. After the alleyway beating, Arthur is given a gun by a colleague, Randall (Glenn Fleshler, the serial killer in the first season of “True Detective”), and during a hospital gig it clatters to the floor. He’s fired. Returning home in clown gear on a near-deserted subway, he witnesses three drunk Wall Street types harassing a woman and the vomit-laughter starts. Now they pick on him. Now they’re beating him—it’s the alleyway all over again—but out of nowhere, a gunshot, and blood splattering, and one of the Wall Street assholes goes down. Then two. Then—chasing him through several cars and out onto the platform—all three. Afterwards Arthur runs his gangly run away from the crime scene and into a dingy men’s room. He’s breathless. Is he worried? No. Slowly he begins to dance. He’s becoming who he was meant to be.
You know what he’s not becoming? Whatever version of the Joker we’ve seen before. The Joker has sometimes been scarred, sometimes not, but he’s always been an insane criminal mastermind. Here, he can’t even spell. Here, he only achieves power because he becomes an underground celebrity after the subway killings. His followers, who begin to dress like him, act out, and protest, think his subway killing was class-related. It’s not. He was just mad as hell and wasn’t going to take it anymore. He was just tired of trying to do good in a no-good world.
Once he gets a taste, though, he doesn’t stop. He smothers his mom with a pillow, kills Randall—twice his size—with a knife, and shoots Murray Franklin in the head on live TV. What do his victims have in common? They all “deserved” it. Heavy quotes around “deserved.”
Stompin’ on a dream
This is the part of the film that has some critics worried—and, I have to admit, it does leave a bit of a bad taste. It’s not just that the villain is the hero, and the father of the hero—usually a saintly figure himself—is an asshole here: a rich loudmouth who begins a tone-deaf run for mayor at a time of vast wealth inequality. It’s that the screenwriters and director Todd Phillips (“Road Trip,” “Old School,” the “Hangover”s) stack the decks in Arthur’s favor. He kills Randall but not Gary (Leigh Gill), who never harmed anyone. Is that the next step? First you do it in self-defense (subway assholes); then you get those who deserve it (Mom, Murray, etc.); then it’s just anyone. We just don’t witness the final step.
I assumed he would kill Thomas Wayne, too, but Bruce’s parents get it during the Joker riots. They leave a movie theater, see the chaos going down, and Thomas, like an idiot, directs them into a dark alleyway, where a clown-masked rioter calls out his name, he turns, boom. Then Martha gets it—pearls flying—and young Bruce stands stoic over their bodies, and ... you know the rest.
(A nice touch: the movies on the marquee are Brian DePalma’s “Blow Out” and the George Hamilton satire “Zorro, the Gay Blade,” which places the scene squarely in 1981 while reminding us of Batman’s superhero progenitor. Zorro inspired the creation of our Batman; leaving “Zorro” inspired the creation of this Batman.)
Anyway, yes, the movie is problematic, but for me there’s enough humanity here to save it. Most everyone in this world feels real: his social worker, the woman on the bus, the two detectives pursuing him (Shea Whigham and Bill Camp). One of my favorite scenes is with the Arkham asylum aide (Bryan Tyree Henry of “Atlanta”), who is simply trying to be helpful and slowly realizes Arthur can’t be helped, then tries to put the brakes on. It’s a great, understated scene.
The character who feels least real? Murray Hamilton, ironically. De Niro starred in the movies that inspired this one, including “Taxi Driver” and “The King of Comedy,” and once seemed more real than movies allowed. Now that’s Joaquin Phoenix. The torch has been passed.