Spoiler alert: very light forecast here. Story elements discussed, but most of the particulars are left out.
Better To Be Clown Prince For A Day Than A Schmuck For A Lifetime
I saw Joker on its opening Thursday, at one of the latest times. On my way into the theater, packs of friends and couples exited the theater, many of them wearing Joker tshirts featuring his face roaring with manic laughter and scrawled red “HA HA HA” letters. I do not think they got the movie they were expecting, and that’s okay. This Joker is unique and exists in a movie that is less about building up a supervillain on the way to fighting righteous vigilantes and more about falling down (and Falling Down).
Without spoiling specific events, I would say Joker is a great character study that loses sight of its best narrative qualities in the third act, settling for being an okay Joker movie. For a good while, Arthur Fleck’s tortured, miserable existence (this is not a happy movie) follows a vague path. We see the frail but effective support structures in his life tumble away one after another, each loss sending him reeling closer to the edge of his insecurity but also grasping more desperately to whatever small hope is left for fulfillment and love. There is a line from 2004’s Flight of the Phoenix that stuck with me and applies here: “I think a man only needs one thing in life. He just needs someone to love. If you can’t give him that, then give him something to hope for. And if you can’t give him that, just give him something to do.” In this case, “man” is more appropriate than “person,” as Joker is extremely focused on Fleck’s experiences and narrative, almost to the exclusion of everyone else in the movie.
Send In The Clowns – Don’t Bother, They’re Here
My favorite thing about Joker’s story is how much we aren’t told. We know what Fleck wants to accomplish in life and change about his circumstances, but his behavior still veers into odd directions and choices, a dizzying feat from Joaquin Phoenix that elevates a great deal of the movie above its sadly shallow conclusion. Some viewers will recoil at the dirge of cellos in the soundtrack that keeps reminding us how punishing everyday life can be, while others will light up at the responding sharp violins that signal moments where Fleck “fights back” against a cruel and unjust world by inflicting violence on others. For a time, Joker loves to ride the tension between “Fleck should stand up for himself” and “but not like that.” Zazie Beetz (apartment neighbor Sophie), Frances Conroy (Penny Fleck, Arthur’s mom), and Sharon Washington (social worker) all play struggling women who are failed by the same system as Fleck — does he lash out partly on their behalf, or do they exist merely to support his ego? I think there is an interesting case for a mixture.
The story’s momentum, however, is not invested in how Fleck can be a champion of the people. Protesters adorned in clown masks hint at a righteous cause at the movie’s heart, but Fleck readily declares, “I don’t believe in anything.” However, he’s so caught in his own erratic thought patterns that labeling him a nihilist doesn’t do the full portrait justice. The movie’s visual direction makes Fleck’s uphill climb toward a decent, honest life a clearly Sisyphean struggle, destined to crumble, but it also displays Phoenix’s unique performance where copycats can’t follow. Moments of Fleck dancing alone are open to interpretation: is he rehearsing a performance he hopes to give one day, cheering himself up with music only he can hear, or some other explanation? A lot of Joker fans like to praise the villain’s “multiple-choice” origins, and I think Fleck’s sometimes-uncertain motives are a great fulfillment of that promise. We’re seeing how he becomes the Joker, but we still don’t know the full story… for a time.
You’re Only As Healthy As You Feel
Whether the first two-thirds of the movie work for you depends a lot on how much you’re willing to invest in a movie beating someone up for being earnest and different. Fleck has a compulsive laughter condition, one that often causes people to assume the worst of him and react with derision and violence. Repeatedly, other residents of Gotham are allowed to treat Fleck as their punching bag because they mistakenly think they’re the butt of his joke. Similarly, some residents of Gotham put on clown masks as a form of political statement all on their own – society looks for an excuse either way. Watching a well-intentioned sad-sack get railroaded into psychopathy has been diagnosed by some cultural critics as a dangerous premise that will inspire viewers with low self-esteem to inflict harm on others. These critics can take comfort in how the third act defuses all of Fleck and the movie’s power, transforming what was the birth of an unpredictable personality into a pitifully aggrieved comedian.
Without going too far into specifics, there is a sequence packed with dramatic tension in which Fleck explicitly states his problems with society and his portrayal within it. Moments of silence in this sequence seem to indicate how powerfully dreadful it should be, but instead all narrative tension is lost because Fleck’s motivations are revealed in obvious, mundane terms instead of a more mysterious/chaotic approach. The multiple choices give way to rote recitation and “ta-da” placement of Fleck as a villain that declares the magic trick complete. Todd Phillips and Lawrence Sher’s vision of Gotham is as gritty and dreary as Fleck’s daily commute, with bright spots saving him from overwhelming darkness. The stinger is that Fleck is at his least interesting as soon as he hits rock bottom.
That’d be like ending a review without a neat summary paragraph.
Verdict 3.5 out of 5 – Beautiful visuals, captivating performance, dark soundtrack (with one left-field song choice), does not stick the landing.
PS: Keep an eye on young Bruce Wayne and see if you spot the Adam West reference.