Joker

 

            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 shadows.

            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 son's origins.

            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.

 

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association