I put off seeing “Joker” for as long as I could. Beside being a complicated film about a highly contemporary subject, it’s a scary film with Joaquin Phoenix — who is scary all by himself.
But one can’t talk about this film without acknowledging Heath Ledger, the talented young actor who created the character for Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” (Batman). Ledger died of a drug overdose while that film was in post-production in 2008. But he received an Oscar posthumously for his Joker character, and it was a thing of horrifying beauty.
However, I couldn’t help but think that the Academy was trying to make up for the fact that they didn’t give him the Oscar for his incredibly complicated role as Ennis Del Mar in “Brokeback Mountain” the year prior.
Production notes on “Joker” refer to the film as a “psychological thriller,” a character conceived by director Todd Phillips, who co-authored the screenplay with Scott Silver. It is based on a DC Comics characters, a prequel if you will, for the “Batman” films. It is primarily about the life of a failed stand-up comedian, Arthur Fleck, whose suspect mental health inevitably turns into a life of bitter crime. It also has Robert De Niro as talk show host, Murray Franklin, a Johnny Carson character with whom Arthur is obsessed. One of Arthur’s favorite pastimes is practicing his appearance on Franklin’s show.
Phoenix plays Fleck as an unintentioned “incel” character, a contemporary word describing an online group of young men who consider themselves unable to attract women. They are generally hostile toward both men and women, a fringe character much like a Charles Manson. The screenplay doesn’t specifically picture Fleck as a computer nerd. There are no computers in Gotham. But the inference is there.
Fleck is alienated by practically everything going on in his depressed life: a mother, Penny, of unsound mind (whom we first see as Arthur is bathing her), who believes that the wealthy billionaire Thomas Wayne is Arthur’s father; a squalid apartment in a violent city that is rotten to its core; a desire to be a successful comedian, but he’s unable to deliver a joke. Combine that with a medical condition that causes him to laugh uncontrollably at inappropriate moments, and the fact that the city suddenly defunds the meds he takes to help control his impulses, and we have all the makings of a disaster.
“Joker” has been described as a political parable about our misanthropic times. And that doesn’t apply just to the fictional wasteland of Gotham City. We live in a time where anyone can find support and validation in groups online. Just look at the manifestos written by the scourge of mass shooters that seem to appear weekly in our society.
Though Warner Brothers wanted Leonardo DiCaprio in the title role, Phillips cast Phoenix, a sound bet for such a convoluted character — as well as an actor markedly different from Phillips’ previous films like “The Hangover,” “Road Trip” and “Old School.” It has grossed over half a billion dollars so far, breaking the record for October releases. It took the Golden Lion award at the Venice Film Festival, where it premiered. And Phoenix is riveting. But his character gets old fast. It’s a film that is rough sledding, see it at your own risk. And I’ll see you at the movies.
Toni Clem is a Paris resident and has been writing Deja View for more than 30 years.