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BRUTAL TRAGEDY: ‘Joker’ darkly entertains, even without a message

Joaquin Phoenix as the Joker pulls out a compelling performance. Photo by Niko Tavernise/Warner Bros.

Joaquin Phoenix as the Joker pulls out a compelling performance. Photo by Niko Tavernise/Warner Bros

 

A spotlight can reveal a lot.  It’s a bright, burning, blinding beam that some people live for. Others spend their entire lives chasing it but are never able to bask in its glow. Still, others don’t deserve to have the spotlight turned on them.

As a fictional character, the Joker has stolen the spotlight in a number of films. From Jack Nicholson’s iconic take in 1989’s game-changing blockbuster, to Heath Ledger’s award-winning spin on the Clown Prince of Crime, the character has been heavily illuminated in recent years. Never has the spotlight been turned up so high as in Todd Phillips’ disturbing take on one of the most iconic villains ever created in “Joker.”

Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is a wayward soul trying to get by on the mean streets of Gotham City as an entertainer.  By day he performs for paying customers as a clown. By night he tries to hone his material to take a shot at being a stand-up comedian. The only things standing in his way are crippling depression, mental illness, losing his support system due to bureaucratic cutbacks, a controlling mother, and a neurological disorder that causes him to laugh maniacally. All that and he has no real, discernible talent as a performer.

Every corner of Arthur’s world is ugly. Everything he truly believes in is a lie—whether it’s the nature of his mother’s relationship with Gotham City royalty Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) or his faith in his own abilities to make people laugh.  He’s a socially awkward misanthrope, desperate for attention and affection. Unfortunately, this cruel reality offers him nothing but pain and disappointment—until he sheds his passive tendencies and begins to fight back against those who would prey upon his fragile mental state.

Arthur’s liberation is a cathartic moment of violence, which allows him to finally feel in control. It’s a breakdown and a breakthrough for him, and he begins to believe the negative thoughts that plague him might be the only ones worth listening to. I’m being intentionally vague with plot details because I think “Joker” has a story worth witnessing first-hand. It’s a brutal tragedy and has little room for levity. 

“Joker” is an interesting piece of homage cinema. It is constructed using creative building blocks of other movies, such as obvious Scorcese influences of “King of Comedy” and “Taxi Driver.” There’s also a healthy dose of Joel Schumacher’s “Falling Down,” which chronicled a lonely loser’s descent into what he perceived to be righteous violence. Todd Phillips has taken a popular comic-book character and stitched together a psychotic tale that manages to be both entertaining and occasionally shocking.

I’ll use the phrase “thought-provoking” to describe “Joker.” There are no messages, no lessons to be learned. And that’s fine. All that’s required of any movie is to be entertaining. However, there are different ideas being played with that beg for further examination—like Arthur’s mental state and psychosis. Neither are examined deeply enough. There are themes of classism and how the disenfranchised are systematically ostracized.  Both ideas are dangled throughout the story, but neither is explored or used to say anything meaningful. Sadly, they’re just plot points turned into missed opportunities.

When I first heard Warner Brothers was doing a solo Joker movie, I wondered what the spotlight would do to the character.  Would it shine a light on all his off-putting antisocial aspects? Would the character wither, creatively speaking, when having to try and shine without Batman lurking in the shadows? Phillips and Phoenix have managed to deliver a very entertaining tragedy that doesn’t cut particularly deep. Still, it’s totally worth watching as a beautifully shot, exceptionally well-performed piece of exploitation cinema. It finds new and interesting ways to shock, especially coming from a major Hollywood studio that tends to be more risk-averse than an anxiety-ridden coward who hates board games.

DETAILS:
Joker
Rated R, 2 hr 2 mins
Directed by Todd Phillips
Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy

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