MESSAGE IN THE MOVIES
Early in Joker we see Arthur Fleck (Phoenix), a working clown and an aspiring stand-up comic, at a regular meeting with the social worker (Sharon Washington) assigned to his case. He is in the midst of a long and grating fake laugh. This appears to be such a common occurrence in his daily life that he carries around a laminated card to inform people in public that he simply cannot control these outbursts. A mother on a bus (Mandela Bellamy) is clearly irritated by Arthur’s behavior and is not interested in any possible excuse or explanation.
Which sums up my overall opinion about Joker. It is a sloppy mess of a movie that attempts to create a new origin story about The Joker, one of Batman’s most iconic foes, without providing Joker anyone to fight – except everybody, including his family, the media, politicians, the wealthy, and other clowns. An early scene shows Arthur getting attacked by a group of young men during one of his clown gigs that involves twirling an “Everything Must Go” sign. Later in the film we learn that he was abused by his father in the past; his mother continues to deal with mental health issues as well. Naturally – with its political incorrectness on full display – the film insinuates that mental illness leads to acts of violence.
Joker is so derivative of other movies that virtually every critic has noticed its references to Taxi Driver, The King of Comedy and A Clockwork Orange. I almost hate to say this but all three of these films are sunnier experiences than Joker (and they all had something important to say). By creating an unsympathetic antihero and then surrounding him with an unbelievable world, writer-director Philips has managed to create a film that I would be tempted to say fails on every level – if I knew what the movie was trying to do!
The whole story is set in Gotham City – resembling New York City in the 80s – and can’t decide whether to be in Gotham or NYC. We have commercials from the 80s as well as stupid music choices that are so on the nose they might as well have been made of red rubber. The television show that Arthur desperately wants to make his standup comedy debut on is clearly modeled on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson (and De Niro does a nice job with his part as Murray Franklin, the Carson stand-in.), but its format and dressing room are closer to a public access show on basic cable. In the world of Gotham, Arthur hangs out with a group of other clowns who put on their makeup together before leaving for their various gigs.
And then there’s Phoenix’s performance as Joker. Not only isn’t it funny, but just about everything Arthur throws into his act – making faces, dancing and laughing (no balloon animals?) seems to amuse only himself. He’s having a great time!
The film eventually arrives at an over-the-top jaw-droppingly-violent conclusion that is neither expected or earned. I thought that it was interesting how discrete the movie’s credit to DC comics was and how adamant the comic book franchise was in claiming that Joker was a standalone film and not a prelude to other movies to come.One can only hope and pray.
Halo and Pitchfork Rating:
Zero halos: An over-the-top Joaquin Phoenix performance is the centerpiece of a 2 hour headache of a movie.
Five pitchforks: Bloody and brutal violence including murder and mayhem; pervasive swearing; crude gestures; and CLOWNS – so many CLOWNS.
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Rev. Bruce Batchelor-Glader
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