JOKER (2019)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Todd Phillips
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beets
My Rating: 10/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 68%

PLOT: In early-‘80s Gotham City, mentally-troubled comedian Arthur Fleck, disregarded and mistreated by society, embarks on a bloody downward spiral of crime and social revolution.

Most comic book movies, by default, require at least a little pre-existing knowledge of the universe inhabited by these characters, in order for the stories to make sense.  There are precious few exceptions.  Batman Begins (2005) is one.  Superman (1978) is another.  And now we have Joker, an origin story like no other, presented to the viewer as if no previous Batman movies existed, as if the Joker was a creature as new and original as Hannibal Lecter was nearly thirty years ago.  (Or, dare I say, Travis Bickle, over FORTY years ago…)

It’s incredible, if not impossible, to believe this film was directed by a man (Todd Phillips) whose most famous movies to date have been the Hangover trilogy and Old School.  There is nothing in this gritty psycho-drama that bears any resemblance to anything Phillips has directed before.

And I haven’t even mentioned Joaquin Phoenix’s performance yet.  More on that later.

The story: Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) is an everyman, your average nobody, living in Gotham City in the early ‘80s, a time of garbage strikes, graffiti-riddled subways, and a porno theater on every downtown corner.  He lives with his invalid mother and pays the bills as a clown-for-hire, doing everything from entertaining bedridden children to sandwich-boarding on the street.  His real dream is to be a stand-up comedian and appear on a late-night talk show hosted by Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), whom he idolizes like a long-lost father.

(The similarities of this plot point to The King of Comedy [1983] have been well-documented and need not be explored here; that would require a whole separate article.)

So far, this is really heavy material, a real downer.  But then the screenplay strikes gold.  It turns out Arthur suffers from an unsettling, but very real, affliction, although it’s never quite named in the film: Pathological Laughter or Crying (PLC). Also known as the pseudobulbar effect, it is a neurological condition defined by episodes of uncontrolled laughter or crying.  People with PLC often laugh out loud or cry for no apparent reason.

In other words, Arthur simply bursts out laughing for no reason, and often, as we’ll see, at the most inopportune or inappropriate moments.

To me, this was genius.  It gives a legitimate grounding for the Joker’s iconic laugh.  What would normally be comic-bookish or hammy in previous incarnations becomes a little sad.  I felt empathy towards this guy whenever his affliction overcame him, especially in the scene on the bus when he’s amusing a little kid by pulling goofy faces, and the kid’s mom tells him to stop bothering her child, and he starts laughing despite his obvious disappointment.  The empathy for me came when I could see through the laughter, could see Arthur’s face contorting with genuine sadness and misery even as he guffawed helplessly.  It was touching.

The real turning point of the movie comes when he is accosted by three drunken yuppies on a subway, and he starts laughing uncontrollably, and the yuppies start beating him up…but they don’t know about the gun he’s carrying for protection.

But that’s enough of the plot.  I think I’ve described only the parts of it that you might have guessed anyway from the trailers.  The sensationally well-told story, not to mention the complexity of the story itself, is only one half of the movie’s greatness.

The other half, it must be said, is Joaquin Phoenix’s performance.  The trailers don’t do it justice.  A lot of the performance has to do with his tortured facial expressions when he has a laughing fit.  There are a couple of extraordinarily long shots where Arthur SHOULD be crying, but is instead laughing, and his agony is evident.  He WANTS to cry properly, but he can’t.  I don’t know how he pulled it off, but you can see both emotions on his face at the same time.  It’s a masterstroke.

Another remarkable factor at work in his performance is his subtle nods to previous Jokers in movies, and even TV.  If you watch really carefully, you’ll notice a quick reference to Mark Hamill’s celebrated voice work as the Joker in the Batman animated series and films; Cesar Romero’s eccentric dance moves from the ‘60s television series; and Heath Ledger’s hair.  (If there’s a reference to Nicholson, I must have missed it.)  I just thought it was a brilliant touch to bring in all of those influences and incorporate them into this newest incarnation, as if to acknowledge the pop-culture roots of this character, while still breaking new ground.

Joker is the comic-book movie for people who don’t like comic-book movies (even Deadpool).  It’s The Dark Knight crossed with Se7en and Taxi Driver.  It’s utterly unlike any comic-book movie I’ve ever seen, and I doubt anyone will ever be able to make another one like it without comparing it to this one.

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