Movie Review: Joker

Joker is a film about a down on his luck clown and comedian, who takes the law into his own hands to make people sit up and notice him as he suffers through mental illness and poverty. The film stars Joaquin Phoenix, Frances Conroy, Zazie Beetz, and Robert De Niro. It is directed and co-written by Todd Phillips.

Stop me if you've heard this one before, but what I liked about the Joker, as a comic book villain, is that he is unknowable. He's an agent of utter and terrifying chaos who doesn't have to have a reason for what he does. There is no name, no explanation, just fear of when he will strike next and how bad the damage will be to the people and the city.

To take that unknowable, and nearly unstoppable, force and add reason is to suggest that we, as an audience should and need to sympathize with his abhorrent behavior. The filmmakers want us to understand his frustrations and see why he could do what he did. This is the same thing our society has done with the dozens of men who have committed mass murder as the character Arthur does, in Joker.

The film, Joker, attempts this contextualization of the character Joker because it seems to want to make a broader statement about these dangerous kinds of men. It mixes the metaphors of the strongman politicians, the lone gunmen, the political movements, and the class struggle. Arthur has this innate power to rally and to inflame. Yet, the film doesn't give him a true point of view. He is their call to action without a clear idea of what that action is really for or against. The mob sews the chaos he's never asked for, but become the audience he's always wanted, faceless, loyal, and adoring.

A lot like what Rupert Pupkin wanted. He wanted to be a comedian and be adored for it like his late night host idol. It's also a lot like what Travis Bickle wanted. He wanted to be an avenging angel, to clean up the streets and make a name for himself in the faceless, loveless, rotting city. While Joker has no direct adaptation material, it doesn't mind that it's entirely derivative of the Scorsese films The King of Comedy and Taxi Driver, which both star Robert De Niro, here becoming the comedian to which Arthur aspires. Joker is professional fan fiction posing the question, what if Martin Scorsese had been asked to make a Batman film? The answer is as messy as the morality in those other films and reminds us just how terrifying a man who thinks he deserves something more than he's getting is when he finally decides it's time for him to act.

Yet, at the core of this story of Arthur is the mesmerizing and grotesque performance by Joaquin Phoenix. Phoenix's sheer physicality is staggering and daring in ways I couldn't have imagined in my own head. I was enrapt as Phoenix danced, literally danced, because it was a performative gesture for a man unable to laugh or smile without pain. He shows Arthur's joys and triumphs through movement. Phoenix embodies Arthur and all of his faults so wholly and uncannily. A truly incredible performance.

Joker sets a bad precedent, not only for it's convoluted non-message, but because it is a comic book film masquerading as a character study. I feel that if this film hadn't had the DC logo, if it didn't rely on, and yes even rehash, mythos from the Batman story, it could have been something I would have enjoyed more. We keep allowing the holders of intellectual property to rehash, refit, and remold the same old same old with "new" visions while we let original cinema fall into obscurity. I don't recommend this film, but you'll see it anyway because it purports to be a character you know and that's easier than something that you could experience with fresh eyes. It's the reason I still watch Marvel films on a big screen and save the majority of foreign and limited releases for my Netflix queue, despite those being films I enjoy more.

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