A new Joker takes the stage

Lucien Waugh Daly

In one pivotal climactic scene of Todd Phillips’ “Joker” – likely the most intensely debated film of 2019 – Joaquin Phoenix’s mentally ill Arthur Fleck announces that “this isn’t about politics. I’m not political.”
It begs the question of whether Phillips’ film, which has been labelled a cinematic siren for incels and a regressive depiction of masculine suffering, intends to say anything political at all.
Or, in attempting to frame the psychosis of a broken man through a filter of comic-book thrills, has it simply become an unintentional scapegoat for American media neurosis that has been building upon fears of violence and far-right rebellion throughout the last few years of the Trump era?

Phoenix is the third actor in eleven years to don the iconic clown makeup on the big screen. His performance – while certainly not without its iconic moments – still remains in the shadow of Heath Ledger’s generation-defining work in Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight”.

The portrayal lacks the full-bodied insanity that powered Ledger’s Joker to becoming the face on a million teenagers’ bedroom walls. Yet “Joker” is a film with obvious intentions of adorning many a college dorm wall in its own right, capturing the same spirit of (perhaps superficial) modern male rage that elevated films like “Fight Club” to cult status 20 years ago.

Phillips has wrangled a cacophony of film influences into an aesthetic that is, while certainly unique, often too derivative of already-iconic work to take at face value: the homages to “Taxi Driver” and “The King of Comedy” don’t get more obvious than the casting of Robert De Niro as a comedy talkshow host idolised by Arthur, but there are equally unsubtle tributes to work like Paddy Chayefksy’s screenplay for “Network”, the classic 1976 drama about a news anchor kickstarting a political uprising.

Joker is a film concerned with media and its relationship to social unrest. Therefore it’s ironic how this film has become such a talking-point in the never-ending debate over film’s ability to glorify murder and motivate violent acts.

We meet Arthur Fleck when he’s working for a clown hire company called Ha Ha’s, spinning an advertising sign on a street corner when he’s not caring for his frail mother. His frequent public humiliation is one element contributing to mental deterioration that his psychiatrist struggles to help him control.

Phoenix leans too heavily into a cartoonish laugh that is at first effectively sinister but descends into tedious repetition. Yet he never hits the painfully aggressive “twisted” notes of Jared Leto in Suicide Squad, who was the least interesting possible version of this character. Arthur, at the worst of times, still feels like a fully-formed human being with more ties to Scorsese protagonists than generic Batman rogues.

Phillips has assembled an enigmatic supporting cast around Phoenix: De Niro is something of a moral anchor amidst the controlled chaos as a Jay Leno type who fulfills the same function Jerry Lewis did in “The King Of Comedy”.

Atlanta’s Zazie Beetz is a warm peripheral presence, while Bill Camp and Shea Whigham lend some prestige status as the detectives who may or may not be onto Joker’s tail.
The film ramps up the surprises in its final act, as Arthur’s transformation into the familiar monster escalates and the city that has treated him like a joke for so long begins to catch up to his dark philosophies.

Joker isn’t quite powerful enough to incite any kind of real-life revolution, but it’s somewhat refreshing to see a film this intellectually curious open to a box office of almost $100m in one weekend. Twisted indeed.

 

Lucien Waugh Daly
Image Credit: HDQ Walls