As an origin story, Todd Phillips’ “Joker” tells us exactly how the Clown Prince of Crime came to be (in this universe anyway). Co-written and directed by Phillips, the movie breaks down exactly what drives Joker to commit unparalleled acts of violence against the citizens of Gotham. It does this in utterly gorgeous fashion—it is a beautifully crafted film—but the answers it has to offer on the character in question are at best ill-conceived, but more probably disgustingly offensive.
Portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix, Joker, nee Arthur Fleck, is a poor man living in Gotham with his aging and unwell mother, Penny (Frances Conroy). Fleck is a clown who works parties and store closings and, like most folks in Gotham, is bullied. He is bullied by those who are similarly poor and by those who are rich. He is also, and this is where things start to go off the rails for the film, mentally ill.
The exact nature of this illness is never specified, but the movie uses it as a crutch. The argument goes something like this: Arthur does bad things, he’s a bad guy; sure he does bad things, but he’s bullied, he’s driven to them, it’s not his fault; bullying is no excuse, especially when it comes to his committing murder; oh… then he’s mentally ill, yeah, mentally ill, you have to remember that and feel bad for him, he’s not responsible, he’s ill.
It is a reprehensible way to proceed. It takes all agency away from the character, particularly as the movie progresses and Arthur makes a point of noting he’s off his medication as things ramp up. “Joker” says it is about this man, about what is going on inside his mind, what he could drive him to commit the heinous acts he commits and then, as it turns out, it just throws up its hands and says, “Sure he brings a loaded gun to a children’s hospital, but you have to remember: he’s mentally ill!” Does he stalk Sophie Dumond, the single mother played by Zazie Beetz? “Maybe, but remember: he’s not responsible, he’s mentally ill!”
Even if one could ignore the horrible nature of the argument about this one character, the stigma under which it puts people with actual illness in the real world is irresponsible, more so because the movie never defines the illness. Are we to understand this is just what people with such a problem do? Perhaps. Perhaps not. “Joker” just doesn’t care. It uses illness as a cudgel by which it can beat sympathy for the character into the audience with no larger thought beyond that.
As if that wasn’t enough, “Joker” tosses out a nearly equally bad class argument. The wealth divide in Gotham is huge, with the rich treating those with less like vermin and the rage slowly building in response. Even the lofty Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), who purports to want to help the poor, has something unseemly in the way he speaks about that aid and those who would receive it.
Quickly though, the movie sets aside anything negative it might have to say about the haves and puts the onus on the have-nots. Joker is taken up as a symbol by the poor as they rise up against the wealthy. The group fully supports and embraces a murderer. It isn’t that they don’t know what he did, just that they think he was right to do it, that the rich deserve it.
The argument here becomes: sure, the rich are crass and don’t care, but the poor, they’re vandals and murderers and willing to burn a city when they don’t get their way. It almost functions like a warning to the rich: you will be strung up if you don’t offer slightly more bread and somewhat better circuses.
By tilting the poor into pro-mayhem and murder, the movie negates any real sort of class discussion that could be offered. It is, once more, something terribly ill-considered.
At this point it almost seems silly to talk about the intense performance offered up by Phoenix, but it is worth noting that Phoenix’s performance is strong. Fleck’s laughter is explained as a condition that causes him to laugh when he feels otherwise, and one can see the pain behind the eyes as it happens.
Robert De Niro doesn’t have much to do as talk show host Murray Franklin, but he’s enjoyable to watch and Conroy as Arthur’s mother delivers something heartbreaking. Beetz is barely present, used almost entirely as a vehicle to show Fleck’s responses to the world, and the same is true of Fleck’s coworkers.
Lastly, if one turned off the sound for “Joker,” ignored everything that anyone says or does or what it all might mean, the end result would be a gorgeous film. The sets and costumes are wonderful and much of the imagery is quite powerful.
That, however, can’t be done. One can’t look at a movie that way. It has to be taken as a whole, as an entire piece, and the entire piece here for “Joker” is rotten. All the performances, all the work of everyone behind the scenes, all of it, has been used to create a film that delivers the worst sort of arguments. It is an amazing, stunning, disappointment.
photo credit: Warner Bros.