starring Joaquin Phoenix, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy, Robert De Niro
written by Todd Phillips & Scott Silver
directed by Todd Phillips
by Bill Chambers Two moments that soar: in the one, Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), having just shed the last vestments of propriety, dons the complete outfit of his alter ego Joker--the green hair, the white face, the purple suit--for the first time and does an impromptu dance to Gary Glitter's stadium staple "Rock and Roll Part 2" on an empty stairway in Gotham City. In the other, stand-up comic Joker achieves his dream of guesting on "The Murray Franklin Show". The former is great because the music is at once non-diegetic and clearly prodding Joker; it's one of the few times we're indisputably inside his head, and, naturally, he's soundtracked his grand entrance like he's the star pitcher coming out to wow the crowd in the sixth inning. (Phoenix is arguably the first actor since Cesar Romero to accept that Joker isn't just a psychopath, he's also a complete dork.) The latter distinctly reminded me of Phoenix's standoffish appearance on Letterman while he was in the throes of shooting the mockumentary I'm Still Here, but the reason the sequence works is that it's legitimately suspenseful watching Robert De Niro's Murray Franklin harangue Joker on live television, stoking a burning fuse. De Niro's presence is of course a nod to Martin Scorsese's The King of Comedy, in which he's an aspiring comedian so desperate to do his act on "The Jerry Langford Show" that he stalks and eventually kidnaps the titular Jerry (Jerry Lewis). Despite that legacy casting, a particularly baleful De Niro is morbidly implausible as a talk-show host of legend, yet his proto-Morton Downey Jr. is defensible in that it looks ahead to the rise of today's angry pundits. Unlike his ingratiating contemporaries (Johnny Carson, Merv Griffin, Jerry Langford)--period markers, including the cheesy glitz of "The Murray Franklin Show"'s set design, suggest the film takes place circa 1980--Murray seems to be jonesing for conflict. Incidentally, De Niro's head hasn't been this square since Midnight Run.
If nothing else, Todd Phillips's Joker proves that two scenes do not a movie make. Employed by a talent agency for clowns, Arthur is gigging as a sign-twirler when we first meet him. Some punk kids steal his sign, and when Arthur gives chase, they violently ambush him. His boss (Josh Pais) cares only about the sign, but a concerned co-worker (the ubiquitous Glenn Fleshler) lends him a .38 for future protection. Arthur lives with his mother, Penny (Frances Conroy), who claims to have worked as a housekeeper for millionaire Thomas Wayne (discount Chris Cooper Brett Cullen, promoted from his role in The Dark Knight Rises as "Congressman") and keeps writing him letters that go unanswered. Arthur dotes on her in scenes that must have felt like déjà vu to Phoenix after You Were Never Really Here. (For me, they fatally remind of a better movie.) In the meantime, Arthur takes a shine to his new gun, which falls out of his clown costume while he's entertaining at a children's hospital--a startlingly funny taboo gag of the sort at which Phillips excels, one that pings off latent antipathy for Patch Adams (yours, mine, ours) while also serving as a handy counterargument to Republican idiot Dan Crenshaw's conviction that friends should be allowed to borrow his firearms. (Not that this excuses some rather dubious plotting.) Permanently fired for the faux pas, Arthur, still dressed as a clown, shoots dead a quartet of rapey Wall Street bros on the subway after diverting their attention from the young woman (Mick Szal) they're harassing. Identified only by his clown costume, he becomes something of a folk hero in the Bernhard Goetz mold, minus the racial component.
The third instalment of Phillips's Hangover trilogy--an anti-comedy that could've come from the pen of Arthur Fleck himself--is the funniest entry if you harbour a certain amount of contempt for the fratty audience that made the first two movies colossal hits, because you can feel its flirtation with wokeness leaving them with blue balls. But even as he's become a fairly subversive filmmaker (and whatever else you think of Joker, it is subversive to push a big-budget, R-rated origin film about a villain--not an antihero, but a villain, a terrorist in fact--through the studio system), he remains reluctant to interrogate the reliably white, entitled males who are his protagonists and primary demographic alike. Whatever the outcome of his flirtations with a gorgeous, single-mom neighbour (Zazie Beetz) says about expectations vs. reality, it seems designed to circumvent a hot-button stereotype so that Arthur is far more Walter Mitty than Joe Incel, blaming women for his lack of charisma. Disingenuous Wayne, initially a symbol of unfeeling capitalism greeted by timely protest banners ("Kill the rich!"), is somehow vindicated when it turns out that Penny is the root of Arthur's problems. But remember: Arthur couldn't possibly be a misogynist--he has a girlfriend he doesn't abuse and he sided with the pretty lady on the subway against her attackers. Joker does not, surprisingly, dance around the issue of whether or not Arthur is mentally ill (he is, and has regular sessions with a social worker (Sharon Washington) because of it), but cuts to city services eventually leave him without his meds. In other words, at a certain point in the story Arthur can no longer be held accountable for his actions. Such equivocation in the age of Trump is frankly moral cowardice, and I'd honestly have more respect for Joker if it were wholeheartedly the fascist daydream many are dreading. The guy who should've directed this is S. Craig Zahler.
The man-children have a lot invested in Joker's success--they sense it will piss off and trigger their illusory enemies, although they're the ones currently throwing a tantrum over its imperfect ROTTEN TOMATOES score--but I'm loathe to predict what the movie's long-term fallout will be. While the idiosyncrasies of Phoenix's performance are fascinating, I don't know that they lend themselves to idol worship as readily as Heath Ledger's "why so serious?" shtick. Arthur, for what it's worth, has a neurological condition that causes him to laugh at inappropriate times, which gradually reverses the meaning of crying and laughing within the film, transforming Phoenix's every cackle into an Oscar clip. That's not the only interesting paradox here--the cynical tag feels nominally transgressive because Arthur becoming more entrenched in his sick alter ego is actually the happy ending of a movie called Joker. Gotham City, for what it's worth, is overwhelmed by a mob of clown imitators far too quickly to be credible--Phillips and co-writer Scott Silver (whose street-conscious scripts run the gamut from 8 Mile to The Mod Squad) are too modern in their viral thinking--but the scorched-earth tableau of Joker beaming with pride over the anarchy he's inadvertently started does have certain unavoidable parallels with MAGA imagery, even if some parallel action involving Trump stand-in Thomas Wayne muddies things. "Little by little, the country changes because of the men we admire," warned Melvyn Douglas in Hud. I guess, in the end, Phoenix's Joker is an upgrade from the current President in terms of false idols. At least he looks good in clown makeup. Updated for clarity: October 4, 2019.