Why, So Serious

Joaquin Phoenix shines in Todd Phillips’ Joker

After months of fervent online debate between people who haven’t seen the film they’re so conclusive in their opinions about, Todd Phillips’ Joker is finally here, and it’s exactly what was promised when it was first announced. A one-off origin story for the iconic Batman villain set in the early eighties, the film is prominently grounded in stylistic evocation of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy. It’s a straight-up, mid-budget character study, with its psychodrama succeeding entirely on the basis of Joaquin Phoenix’s consummate lead (though ample credit should be given to the cello-led score, composed by Hildur Guðnadóttir). Single-handedly, he makes the serious film involving. Wholly inhabiting and performing the character, he is its central, resounding raison d’être.

Phoenix plays Arthur Fleck, a poor, mentally ill man, working as a clown and aspiring to be a stand up comic, who can’t seem to connect to the world. His pseudobulbar affect leaves him prone to fits of uncontrollable laughter. Fleck lives in a ramshackle apartment where he takes care of his ailing mother (Frances Conroy) in a ‘pre-Giuliani’ Gotham City, taking its cues –– rats, garbage strikes, and all –– from New Hollywood’s idea of New York.  Their evenings center on watching the late night talk show hosted by Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro) from their blue and white television. She remains fixated on her connection to Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), a trickle down economics, eighties-Trumpian one percenter and father of Bruce Wayne, in whose employ she worked three decades prior. Following an incident of violence, Arthur’s life takes a significant turn.

Unlike the character’s previous incarnations, Arthur never transforms into a manifestation of chaos and/or hyper-competent criminal mastermind. He is, and remains, a fundamentally broken man, just one who comes upon a different direction for his life. His journey is psychological, and adeptly navigated, ending still as it does at some pronounced comic book touchstones. Whatever Phillips’s aspirations are, the film stays plainly short of our political provocations, and it never manages to coalesce. Joker’s focus never leaves Phoenix, and to that end, the movie cannot help but prevail. 

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