Joaquin Phoenix is a force of nature.
His acting puts this movie on the map, just because of his virtuoso
performance. But the movie
itself is bizarre, and dark, and violent, not suitable for children, and
for that matter, would starve for any kind of audience, were it not for
the way Phoenix brings to the spotlight a character who prefers the
Phoenix plays Arthur Fleck, a sad-sack clown in New York City,
who's employed by a barely-afloat rent-a-clown company.
The other guys seem to be just as marginal as Arthur, who holds up
a “Liquidation” sign in front of a furniture store, or sings “If
You're Happy And You Know It” to a children's hospital cancer ward.
But Arthur can barely contain his brooding, enigmatic personality,
even for a few moments of gainful employment.
He lives with his elderly mother, whom he takes care of, sort
of---their relationship is built more on mutual need than any kind of
tenderness or affection. Arthur
thinks he's going to make it as a stand-up comic.
He keeps notes about possible jokes, but his notebook is filled
with pitiable one-liners like “I hope my death makes more cents (sic)
than my life.” He doesn't
seem “all there,” mentally. He
appears to be, at the very least, manic/depressive, and probably
full-blown bipolar. It doesn't
help that he seems to have inherited his narcissistic personality disorder
from his mother, who, it turns out, is delusional about herself and her
The only temporary bright spot in Arthur's life is a neighbor down
the hall, Sophie (Zazie Beetz), who at least interacts with him like a
normal person, until he manages to freak her out, as well.
We watch Arthur's downward spiral, wondering how demented he's
going to become, but then Director (and co-writer) Todd Phillips broadens
the scope for us. A television
program that Arthur and his Mom watch regularly becomes the focus for
Arthur's meglamania. And
there's something happening on the streets that's kind of a volatile mix
between the “Occupy Wall Street” movement and primal renegade
descending into chaotic rioting. The
clown's face becomes the symbol of this strange new dystopian bravura, and
our Joker revels in the destructive madness.
Yes, there's a nod to comic book culture, with the Joker meeting
Bruce Wayne as a lad, the wealthy Gothamite who would later become Batman,
and, not coincindentally, the Joker's nemesis.
But this movie is really all about the disordered psyche of the
Joker. We viewers literally
don't know what's going to happen next in this creatively violent
byzantine screenplay. All we
know is that this Joker guy really creeps us out.
Which is exactly the intent.