Out in theaters nationwide this weekend is JOKER – director, co-writer and producer Todd Phillips’s original take on the infamous DC villain. A psychological suspense drama inspired by the comic and character, the film explores the evolution of Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) and his fractured psyche – from a lonely outsider to the psychopath that incites protest after his extreme spree of violence in the city of Gotham.
In Phillip’s “Joker,” the audience learns that Fleck is a man suffering from a severe brain injury – a result of childhood abuse – that not only contributed to a significant mental illness but is also the root cause of the “maniacal” laugh comic lovers know – an actual condition called PBA or Pseudobulbar affect.
The film uses flashbacks, imaginings and hallucinations by the lead character to sketch a portrait of a man who becomes a monster while simultaneously highlighting issues that beg the question: What role does the environment and society-at-large play in the creation of what is considered the worst of us?
Before I go any further, I want to address the controversy that unfortunately is surrounding the film. Is “Joker” violent? Absolutely, but none more so than other movies I’ve seen this year, like “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” or the televised DCU story “Gotham” that aired during an 8pm primetime slot and contained way more blood and gore per episode, for example.
And, with today’s social climate, is there any value in a film that focuses on a character who ultimately resorts to violence to be seen? My answer is yes for several reasons.
First, let me describe the Gotham setting of the film. Similar to the Batman lore, the fictional city is one of extremes – the haves and the have-nots – whose poorer inhabitants are subjected to high levels of crime, poverty and subpar standards of living. The lack of empathy and concern for the lower class leads to drastic actions by those in power – like cuts to social programs that cause Fleck’s character to not afford therapy or needed medications.
The film also highlights the actions of those who aren’t in power, but of average folk who interact with and lack empathy for those deemed different. The lead character is confronted with several instances of taunting and assault that add fuel to his progression to murderous villain.
I find it telling, and dismissive, that the focus is on the perceived “excessive” violence of this film and not the social implications brought forth. It’s highly understandable why the Aurora theater, and those theaters that have received credible threats, has chosen not to show this film.
However, I agree with the stance taken by Michael Moore and believe “Joker” is a great piece of storytelling that shines a light on relevant social issues – and does so, fictionally, by utilizing one of the most well-known characters in comic history.
That being said, Joaquin Phoenix’s performance as Joker is a force worthy of all the praise he’s been receiving. In production notes, the actor shares that he dropped 52 lbs. by consuming little more than an apple a day for the role. While viewing, I personally was – and still am – concerned for his well-being – he was that immersed in character and freakishly so.
“Joker” also lends itself well to the Batman cannon, even as a stand-alone, by introducing Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) as Gotham’s wealthiest citizen who’s running for mayor and who used to employ Fleck’s mother Penny (Frances Conroy). “Joker” doesn’t miss the opportunity to introduce Bruce Wayne as a child, nor his trusted butler Alfred Pennyworth, but the focus is mostly on the elder Wayne – whose presence, or lack of, has a significant impact on Arthur’s life.
The creation of Gotham, with a late 70’s and early 80’s feel, and the locations used effectively display the imbalance in life circumstances of the residents – from those who reside in bleak and rundown apartments to those fortunate enough to attend lively concerts and late-night talk shows.
And speaking of talk shows, some of the most interesting scenes are those with Academy-award winner Robert De Niro, who portrays Murray Franklin – a late-night host that Fleck and his mother watch nightly and who fuels Fleck’s aspirations and cringe-worthy attempt to be a stand-up comic.
There are also noteworthy Easter eggs in this story that comic lovers would appreciate like scenes in Arkham Asylum, called Arkham State Hospital in the film. And there were sequences shot in Brooklyn at the live performance venue Kings Theater, that stands in for Wayne Hall.
One major critique I have is the under-utilization of the character Sophie Dumond, portrayed by Zazie Beets. Beets is not given much screen time and, for most of the film (slight spoiler), is an object of Fleck’s desires and nothing more. It would have been nice to see her role extended and given more opportunity to shine.
I don’t doubt that Joker is going to do exceedingly well at the box office despite the current controversy, not playing in several locations, and my wishes that the story included more of Beets’s character. Notwithstanding, the film is a powerful piece of art with timely messages that I believe are being thrown out by some like the saying goes, “A baby with the bathwater.” I would rate it 4 out of 5 on the MMTrometer.
Until next thought, Thomasena