So this is the world we live in now. A world where comic book-based movies can play In Competition at the Venice Film Festival and have critics whooping and gasping in their seats. A world where erstwhile supervillains are reimagined as a cross between Travis Bickle, Rupert Pupkin, and Tickle Me Elmo and made the protagonists of stories in which they only ever used to be the anti-matter to the hero’s grace and goodness (remember grace and goodness? I don’t, I’ve just watched “Joker“). A world where a role first played on screen by Cesar Romero in a creaky ’60s TV show provides one of the best actors of his generation with a defining showcase, for the second time in just over a decade. And where “Old School” and “The Hangover” director Todd Phillips can turn in a film so disturbing it feels almost dangerous: whatever about its hard-R rating, they should maybe think about background checks and a mandatory three-day waiting period at theaters. This is the world post-“Joker” and with nothing but shaky-breathed respect for the filmmaking and storytelling achievement it represents, God, and I cannot stress this enough, help us all.
This Gotham looks a lot like New York City in the late-1970s/early-1980s, and this Joker, aka Arthur Fleck, looks a lot like Joaquin Phoenix, or what’s left of him after weight loss so dramatic his clavicles have gone rogue and seem to be trying to escape through his skin. Arthur is a rentable party clown, whom we first meet enduring a vicious mugging while dressed in his full clown outfit. He lives with his frail mom Penny (Frances Conroy) in a dingy apartment and nurses a stalkerish crush on his single-mom neighbor (Zazie Beetz). He also has Pseudobulbar Affect, a condition which causes him to erupt into spasms of uncontrollable, painful-sounding laughter, and is on seven different types of medication, plus regular social worker therapist sessions, to manage his amorphous, never-named mental illness. Naturally, given this background, he cherishes dreams of being a stand-up comedian.
His hero, in that regard, is talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert de Niro, here playing the Jerry Lewis‘ “King of Comedy” role to Phoenix’s Pupkin). Penny, on the other hand, admires local bigwig and mayoral candidate Thomas Wayne, for whom she used to work and to whom she frequently writes in the hopes he’ll help her and Arthur (whom she nicknames “Happy”) get out from under their squalid lives. Outside, Gotham is in a state of rising social unrest. 10,000 tons of garbage accrues on the streets every day and unkillable super-rats are rumored to roam the gutters. Someday a real rain’s going to come and oh wait, wrong movie.
Or not really. Phillips’ film is a little too slavishly indebted to its influences, which range from the specific, like Beetz making the “Taxi Driver” finger-gun shoot-me gesture, to the more generally aesthetic, as in the use of jaunty recordings of old songs to counterpoint the brutality and grimness of the imagery, whenever Hildur Guðnadóttir’s excellent, swirling, morose, foreboding score is not reinforcing it. And tonally, the film occupies such a relentlessly dour register that it becomes a little too easy to work out which bits might, in fact, not be real and be the products of Arthur’s disordered psyche instead: Basically, any time something nice happens, or someone is kind.
But if the unwavering unwholesomeness of the mood is set a little too steadily, that’s only to give a baseline for Phoenix’s extraordinarily unsettling performance, which changes and jerks and heaves and zags when all laws of psychology and physics suggest it should zig. Perhaps that’s the reason he’s just “Joker” without a definite article — there is nothing defined about him. Sometimes he dances, sometimes he spasms, and sometimes it difficult to tell which is which, but Arthur is terrifying because he represents absolute unpredictability. He has no goal except to be liked and when that proves impossible, he has nothing at all except his illness — not even a desire to watch the world burn. Comparisons with Heath Ledger’s Joker are inevitable, but the two interpretations are very different, with Ledger’s Joker always possessing a steely core of cunning, almost a sophistication running through his psychosis. But there is no grandeur in Phoenix’s Arthur, not even megalomania. He is pathetic and irritating and small, and when he becomes big, it is by accident, when this empty, ruined vessel is mistaken for an icon by the rioting and mutinous population of Gotham.
The ’70s/’80s cues notwithstanding, the hatred of the 1%, the street protests, and anti-authoritarian sentiment, and the far-too-central role that media and celebrity play in our perceptions of social success, all feel horrifyingly present-tense. And here is what is even more frightening than Phoenix’ hacking cackle, or the moments of gruesome bloodiness, or the portrait of a society teetering on the brink of breakdown: “Joker,” based on recognizable IP, and now given the seal of critical and possible awards-consideration approval too, is so aesthetically impressive, effective, and persuasive of its own reality that you see clearly how easily it could be (mis)interpreted and co-opted by the very 4Chan/Incel/”mentally ill loner” element it purports to darkly satirize.
In amongst “Joker’s” fire and blood and chaos and its blackest of blackhearted laughter, there is the sense of a grotesque, green-haired genie being let out of a bottle, and whether it wreaks havoc or not, we’re not going to be able to put it back in. At the press conference after the Venice press screening, Phillips asserted his belief that while movies mirror society, they do not mold it. While not usually ones to deny cinema one iota of its power, this time we just have to hope that he’s right because whatever monumentally unfunny funhouse we’re in, we’re barely hanging on in the world “Joker” reflects. I’m not sure we’d survive the one it would build. [B+]