“Joker” is no laughing matter

Joker (Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz) – Delve deeply below the surface of a psychopathic killer and you will find a highly disturbed individual with delusions of grandeur and unfulfilled ambition.  Such is this dark, frank portrait of Arthur Fleck, the man who would become the Joker, archenemy of Batman and nemesis to Gotham City.

In this prequel to the Batman saga, Joaquin Phoenix brings all of his personal baggage and enigmatic personality to the complicated character of Arthur, who is anything but the one-dimensional villain we have met in multiple Batman films and TV shows.

Arthur lives with his mother and is her primary caregiver.  Through the film, we find out about her, including her history working for Thomas Wayne, the soon-to-be mayor of Gotham. It is Wayne’s son, Bruce (we meet him only briefly as a young boy), who would later become Batman.  Arthur has trouble holding a job.  Currently, he is working as a clown, entertaining kids in hospitals or twirling one of those signs advertising on a street corner.  He is pretty good at it.  But Arthur has a temper and a mental illness that causes him to laugh uncontrollably, often when he is under stress.  He is under the care of a mental health counselor from whom he gets his drugs and for whom he keeps a diary of his demented thoughts.

We watch Arthur turn from misfit to victim to killer to instigator.  It is very disturbing.  Should we have empathy for this bullied, battered, and abused man-boy?  Does his background story warrant a second look at the comic book character depicted as a one-dimensional menace to society?

These questions rest at the heart of Joker, director Todd Phillip’s dive into a fantasy world that seems all too real to the plight of people with deep-seeded mental illness.  Indeed, Joker is a comic book movie but it feels more relevant than that.  Phoenix’s performance is magnificent … regardless of what you think of him.  His talent is undeniable.  Four Oscar nominations prove that.  His two Golden Globe wins, for this and his portrayal of Johnny Cash in Walk the Line, prove that he belongs in the pantheon of current American actors.

Joker has been an audience darling and a critical catastrophe.  The movie is no fun whatsoever.  It is a psychological thriller with graphic violence and disturbing images.  It is quite a ride into hell.  Missing is the sly wink of the Batman films or the campiness of the Batman TV show.  Clearly, Phillips had no desire to recreate anything but the look and feel of Gotham.  That he accomplishes spectacularly.  Joker is a very big movie about one man’s plummet to the dark side.

With 11 Oscar nominations, the most of any 2019 film, and more than $1 billion in box office, it deserves more than casual attention.  It is a spectacle worth viewing and worth pondering.

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