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This Joker’s wild.

Smile, Darn Ya, Smile

Arthur Fleck is Joker
Arthur Fleck is Joker

Part of the charm – for an intentionally poor way to put it — of Joker is how it eschews the trappings of the modern comic book movie. It’s the antithesis of what the other camp, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, has become. It’s a relatively low-budget endeavor ($55 million), so it’s not loaded with eye-melting CGI. It’s not an action-packed, brain-numbing extravaganza. It’s the quintessence of character driven. Even the old school opening credits (sporting the late 1970s/early 1980s Warner Bros. studio logo) set the tone for something off the beaten-to-a-pulp path of Hollywood spectacle. And, mercifully, Zack Snyder didn’t produce this one (but Bradley Cooper did).

This is the beginning of the Joker’s tragic journey down the road of crime and mayhem. And, in this telling, the Joker’s downward spiral once again dovetails with the Wayne family tragedy. It’s a slow-boil transformation from semi-amiable loser and heartbreaking victim to stone-cold killer and completely detestable menace.

Getting past the headlines of the day, there’s nothing here that glorifies the madness of the character that would go on to become Batman’s nemesis. It would take a predisposed sick person to find inspiration in his madness. Granted, there are opportunities for the law to take him down more forcefully than it does, but that’s a relative nit — and it’s also part of the tragedy that he doesn’t get taken down with deliberate, inexorable force. Joker offers a rather complete dissection of what it takes to create this kind of monster. It’s not an individual act; it takes a city.

Think about other movies that more or less thematically sit alongside Joker: Taxi Driver, A Clockwork Orange, Scarface, Psycho. Icons of cinema, one and all. Joker is certain to age well and join their ranks as a classic. The youngest of those forerunners is 36 years old. Society’s changed so much since the early 1980s. And not necessarily for the better. Maybe the problem is people need to learn how to be more discerning and less reliant on being spoon fed what to think. Identify and help the predisposed; don’t penalize the entire populace. Not everybody wins. Bullies exist. Tragedies are inevitable. There is no light without darkness. The trick is in the rebound and the path to recovery. That’s life.

That’s Life

Yes. Even the old Frank Sinatra standard plays a role in this one. The 1980s? As it happens, Joker takes place in 1981 — based on the Gotham movie theatre marquees displaying titles like Blow Out, Zorro: The Gay Blade and Wolfen. And Taxi Driver? Well, rumor has it, Martin Scorsese was going to direct and one of his go-to favorites, Leonardo DiCaprio, was to star. That dynamic duo didn’t pan out (probably for the best), but Robert DeNiro, Travis Bickle himself, plays a major role in Joker as Murray Franklin, a late-night talk show host who turns into a sort of role model for a clown with stand-up comedy aspirations.

DiCaprio isn’t right for this material. In his stead, Joaquin Phoenix is all-in as Arthur Fleck, a two-bit clown splitting his shifts between children’s hospitals and street walking. He’s a mentally ill street rat with all the cards stacked against him. Perhaps the greatest irony of them all is he’s destined to become a crime boss.

Phoenix seems to have taken notes from the Christian Bale School of All-In Commitment. He reportedly lost 52 pounds for the role; considering he’s not a particularly big guy to begin with, that’s a huge percentage of his original weight. He’s skin and bones here and his vulnerable rib cage is right there on the screen, for all to see. Aside from the rigorous shoot of The Revenant, DiCaprio typically doesn’t physically transform himself to such a dangerous extreme. Is this an Oscar-worthy performance? Does Phoenix sufficiently measure up to Heath Ledger? For now, let’s just leave it to time to tell.

Gotham Politics

Joaquin Phoenix is Arthur Fleck
Joaquin Phoenix is Arthur Fleck

The argument can be made Christopher Nolan’s genre-changing Dark Knight trilogy espouses conservative values. Maybe it’s a function of the central character: a wealthy businessman takes it upon himself to save an ailing city, the welfare of which suffocating government systems and corrupt politicians have abandoned.

With that thought tickling the back of the mind, it’s interesting to watch Joker unfold and attempt to identify its political leanings.

Here, maybe Thomas Wayne is a something of a Trump-like figure. Maybe. There’s definitely a different spin going on here from the gentle, philanthropic figure of Batman Begins. In Joker, Thomas comes across as more hard-nosed and aggressive than as a goodwill man of the people. As it happens, he’s also running for mayor of Gotham, which makes him a media target. And his success keeps him in the mind of one Penny Fleck, a former Wayne employee whose own delusional, abusive and neurotic past makes her think Thomas fathered Arthur, her son.

There are so many contributing factors, so many guilty parties involved in contributing to the creation of the Joker. Colleagues, family, health care professionals, neighbors, law enforcement, a cruel society in general. It’s that same society which devolves into a state of mob rule, an affliction which is becoming more prevalent today, as clowns (in this case, literally) take over the city and that infamous Wayne family tragedy unfolds.

It all makes for quite a singular moviegoing experience. It’s a much more challenging production than anything in Snyder’s vision, which seemed fixated exclusively on staging filmed recreations of comic book frames.

Don’t Forget to Smile!

The political angle is only one thread in this movie’s complex narrative. It’s the kind of unsettling complexity that really requires some time to digest and appreciate. It’s the same kind of multi-layered narrative and nuance that propelled the Dark Knight trilogy to a rarified level of gravitas.

Beyond the abandoned meds and an uncontrollable laugh that’s attributed to a medical condition, beyond the green hair and colorful outfits, poor Arthur has his own delusional fantasies that are so subtly presented here, they’re easy to miss. There’s an incident with Murray Franklin, there’s a friendship with a neighbor. Are they real? Or imagined? Writer/director Todd Phillips — best known (until now) for the Hangover trilogy — has crafted a fascinating spin for this longstanding comic book villain and that’s quite a significant accomplishment.

The ending is nothing on the order of a feel-good conclusion. Just as there was a sense of anticipation as Bruce Wayne embarked on his mission to use a bat as a symbol of dread in the hearts of evil, so too there’s a sense of dread as Joker unwittingly starts a movement and becomes a symbol of chaos.