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Joker

(2019) ** 1/2 R
121 min. Warner Bros. Director: Todd Phillips. Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy, Marc Maron, Brett Cullen, Brian Tyree Henry, Shea Whigham, Bill Camp, Douglas Hodge.

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There's an old joke that posits as a curse "May you live in interesting times." I'll just leave that there as I ask, what is Joker? Comic-book movie or “artisan film”? Cultural think piece or reckless endangerment? Director/co-writer Todd Phillips—best known for The Hangover and its sequels—has taken Batman’s most famous villain for a joy(less)ride, and the results are decidedly mixed. And yet Joker qualifies as riveting due to its casting coup of installing Joaquin Phoenix as the homicidal Clown Prince of Crime.

For years, Phoenix has steadily built a case for himself as the heir to Method-acting giants like Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro, and since Phillips’ cover-song mashup riffs on the Batman franchise by channeling two of Martin Scorsese and De Niro’s best cinematic collaborations—The King of Comedy and Taxi DriverJoker’s most stealthily moving moment may be when Phoenix tightly hugs De Niro, like a son grasping for his father’s love and approval. In the film’s context, of course, it’s Phoenix’s mentally ill clown and aspiring stand-up comedian Arthur Fleck (soon to be reborn as Joker) hugging De Niro’s network-TV late-night talk-show host Murray Franklin.

Fleck quickly proves to be the ultimate male outcast, piled upon even more than Taxi Driver’s titular Vietnam war vet Travis Bickle. Sharing a grimy Gotham City walkup with his fragile mother (Frances Conroy), Fleck’s a veteran of institutionalization, taking on grim gig after grim gig as a clown for hire between psych sessions with a social worker (Sharon Washington). Ominously, she’s his only conduit to his cocktail of seven different meds, and inevitably Fleck’s lifelines get cut off one by one, leaving him dangerously adrift. In this pre-Batman Gotham, Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) hovers on the sidelines as the mayoral candidate who makes paternalistic populist promises but keeps veering into callous condescension.

This may be Joker’s most interesting subversion amid the film's magpie style and thematic muddle: in the process of positioning supervillain Joker as working-class antihero, the film reckons with Wayne’s super-elite status and gated mansion in a manner that eats away at his typically philanthropic image. Pointedly, both Wayne and Franklin spit out the word “pal” numerous times at Fleck, in the process of treating him more like mosquito than man (Franklin’s a comic who “punches down”). If Joker has lessons to impart, they are these: don’t bully, because your victim may be the next mass murderer, beware rousing the poor rabble, and oh yeah, allocate more social resources to mental health. Unfortunately, that Joker is a hero in his own mind leads to triumphant imagery that could be read as glorifying him.

By taking what’s usually escapist or mythic fare and turning it into a grotty psychological horror film, a neo-Psycho, the filmmakers create something unusual and off-putting. Christopher Nolan considered the Joker’s legacy and aptly positioned the character as a symbolic boogeyman, the embodiment of anarchy and a man without a past. By contrast, Fleck’s psychosis gets specific backstory and, well, frontstory as the protagonist of a character study that takes us inside his diseased mindset. Counterintuitively, the approach of giving the Joker’s psychosis this much weight in real-world terms gives the impression of trivializing mental illness. Absent a moral compass, the film relies on the audience to remember to bring theirs.

By turns, Fleck is the archetypal male stalker (of his young single-mother neighbor, played by Zazie Beetz) and the archetypal edge-of-madness, attention-seeking social outcast liberated by homicidal gun violence (“people are starting to notice,” he enthuses). The film suggests that empathy would go a long way to solving a problem like Arthur, and even occasionally finds true empathy for its protagonist (when he writes in his journal, “The worst part about having a mental illness is that people expect you to behave as if you don’t”), but audiences are flocking to see him go homicidally insane, and they won’t be disappointed in that regard.

Joker makes strong aesthetic use of its 1980's New York-ish milieu, well designed by Mark Friedberg and photographed byLawrence Sher, and Phillips proves adept at stoking tension. The latter task may not be terribly difficult with De Niro and star attraction Phoenix generating the heat, but Phillips knows what side his bread is buttered on, consistently showcasing his star's ability to take a feeling or a suggestion and turn it into a wrenching acting aria or an evocative interpretive dance: this Joker loves cutting a rug when he's feeling good, in reveries that provide stark contrast to the neurological condition that makes him a choking prisoner of involuntary, self-torturous laughter.

Phillips and co-writer Scott Silver (8 Mile, The Fighter) obviously began their quest to tell a standalone Joker origin story by repurposing the Scorsese films, their most memorable moments (the “you talking to me?” soliloquy, finger-gun-to-the-head, and bloody slayings from Taxi Driver, a talk show held hostage from The King of Comedy), and their historical contexts (vigilante subway murderer Bernie Goetz, the edgy Late Night with David Letterman appearances of Andy Kaufman, Crispin Glover, and the like), hucking them into the gumbo along with a mess of ironic if obvious cultural references to mirth (Chaplin in Modern Times and song standards “Send in the Clowns,” “Smile,” “That’s Life”). In many respects, Joker hearkens all the way back to the 1928 silent The Man Who Laughs, which inspired the comics character in the first place.

Kick in antipathy for the police, clown masks purposed like Guy Fawkes masks in riotous street protests (and is that a Trump effigy in the crowd?), and Joker winks at the state of the nation and the globe. As Fleck asks his counselor, “Is it just me, or is it getting crazier out there?” That question certainly taps the zeitgeist. Ask the 11.4 million Americans, 36% of whom go untreated according to the Department of Health and Human Services, who suffer from “serious mental illness,” numbers growing amid worrying climate change and political chaos. Joker isn’t the film to seriously tackle the issue—it's more concerned with flair than genuine inquiry—but Phoenix’s pained, raw-nerve performance is one for the ages.

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