Joker (2019)

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Food: My boss was an extra in the film (one of the masked rioters) and, therefore, the entire office made a night of it. We met up at The Empire Hotel rooftop and lounged around with an amazing, sparkly view of the city. We got a slew of cocktails and a wide selection of appetizers, which were all exquisite. My favorite was the Maitake mushroom flatbread, but we also enjoyed an order of french fries, shishito peppers (again!), mini sliders, truffle tater tots, and tater tot nachos with jalapenos. It was a cozy spot to pre-game the festival.

Film: “Joker” (2019) seems to be one of the most divisive films of the year, even before it was released. The purpose of making it and having Todd Phillips as director was called into question from the start, and after its premier, further controversy arose as audiences and critics alike tried to decipher whether it accomplished what it set out to do: a character study on how one becomes the psychopathic clown killer we all have grown to know as Batman’s nemesis, the Joker. The perfect plot for ultimate fanfare.

Unfortunately, the film relied on hackneyed writing on mental illness, using almost platitudinous statements, like “I’ve never been happy a day in my life.” Further, Arthur Fleck (the man behind the mask, played by Joaquin Phoenix) openly acknowledges his struggles with mental illness many times, a plot decision that makes it difficult to believe that he could conversely be so unaware of his state of mind as his stability deteriorates. Filmmakers swerved this contradiction by cutting the funding of the social work program where he receives therapy and prescription medication, which works to articulate the socioeconomic priorities of Gotham, but skirts around a less obvious look into the psyche of a truly mentally ill, isolated person, the way better films would (and have).  Oh, to put the cherry on top: Fleck has no father figure, suffers from horrible childhood trauma, and has an unrequited crush on a woman who lives next door.

He has a neurological condition which makes him laugh inappropriately, an idea that lacks any sophistication or intellect. It also resulted in painstaking displays of Joaquin Phoenix desperately laughing over and over again throughout the film, as though it were an audition tape. That being said, Phoenix acts the shit out of this movie. His performance was masterful and fully committed. He transforms into a scrawny and uncomfortable man, who makes a living as an rent-able clown (hired for gorilla marketing or cheering up children at the hospital). He seeps with desperation. The “Joker” has oft been compared to Scorsese’s “The King of Comedy” about a delusional man who is desperate to be a star, and dreams incessantly about meeting famed talk show host. In fact, “Joker” pretty much riffs this plot exactly. (Phillips acknowledges that major inspirations for the screenplay were “The King of Comedy”, along with “Taxi Driver,” “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest” “Dog Day Afternoon” and “Network”).

The obvious difference here is that instead of being an pedestrian incel, Arthur Fleck is also the massive anti-hero of the DC Comic World. He is a glorified villain with probably the largest cult following and that gives this film heavier implications than any of its pseudo-predecessors. Many of the critiques on this film, prior to its release, were that sympathizing with a person like this (white, male, psychopathic killer) was irresponsible because from a political standpoint, our society already sympathizes with this personality too often. However, “Joker” does not attempt to commiserate with this character more than it unveils the tragedy behind him. Instead of the broad shouldered, confident maniacal outlaw we’ve seen in the past, we witness a doddering failure of a person, living in squalor and fiddly in his own skin. This character is reminiscent of reclusive creep, Buffalo Bill in “Silence of the Lambs” (1991). Instead of feeling that he is justified, Fleck makes one recoil in discomfort and feels more wretched than valiant.

An additional aspect of “Joker” that works well, is it’s place in the Gotham universe. The 1970’s New York streets (as evidenced by the graffiti clad subways and ‘Wall Street Guys’ instead of ‘Midtown Bros’) is the landscape of grimy Gotham. The city is completely dilapidated and a class warfare is on the brink of rupture. The impoverished lower class is waiting for even the smallest spark to ignite their rise against the bourgeois, and historically, the Joker and Batman’s conflict is grounded in their each representing the class from which they come. For reference, Batman is Bruce Wayne, the wealthy son of Gotham’s charismatic but out-of-touch politician, as well as the former employer of Arthur Fleck’s mother.

To conclude, “Joker” will be a hit across mainstream audiences. It is entertaining, and the cinematography is gorgeous. Each and every scene is shot with a whimsical haze (filmed by Lawrence Sher) and the costume design is fantastic (Mark Bridges). As a forever fan of Heath Ledger’s take on the infamous supervillian (dressed by Lindy Hemming), I enjoyed the greasy green long hair, janky walk, yellow teeth, and vintage blazer that is donned by Phoenix in this film. It is an engaging movie with a solid cast (Robert DeNiro in sparkly veneers and a skip in his step plays talk show host Murray Franklin & the stunning Zazie Beetz is a natural as a single-mother-next-door). Todd Phillip’s “Joker” is ultimately an empty facade of a film, with a stronger aesthetic than the parts that fill it, but it will undoubtedly make a splash.

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