Joker ★★½

In the two days since I've seen Joker, arguably the most transgressive and polarizing entry in the genre of big-budget superhero films the last decade has afforded (perhaps since Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight in 2008), I've struggled with making sense of my mixed feelings towards it, something I suspect many viewers will. Not because the film isn't well made or well acted, it certainly is on both counts, but the overall viewing experience was so bleak and depressing, especially for a mass-marketed blockbuster, it's difficult to say I enjoyed the film very much or can eagerly recommend it to an audience despite acknowledging the artistry behind it.

Set in Gotham City in the early 1980s and starring a rail-thin Joaquin Phoenix as the man who would become the titular clown prince of crime, Joker is an origin story that focuses on Arthur Fleck, a mentally unstable loner struggling to get by as a clown while harboring delusions of becoming a successful stand-up comic. He lives in a run-down apartment building on the seedier side of town with his mentally ill mother (Frances Conroy) who Arthur has seemingly become the sole caretaker of. He routinely visits a social services worker for therapy and medication, where we're able to briefly glimpse his journal as a window into his burdened psyche ("I hope my death makes more cents than my life.", one particularly dark entry reads.) When a co-worker loans him a handgun after he's jumped by a group of street kids, Arthur is given a means to enact onto the world the violent impulses he's only harbored up until now. Just about his only happiness is afforded by the time he spends watching his favorite late-night talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro) who Arthur idolizes, and his sweet interactions with neighbor Sophie (Zazie Beetz) a single mother who Arthur see's a kindred spirit in. As Arthur grows increasingly disgusted by the crime and corruption he see's throughout Gotham and the social gap between the have-nots and the haves in this society (the latter personified by billionaire philanthropist and Gotham mayoral candidate Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), whom Arthur's mother previously was an employee of) Arthur slowly begins to lose his already tenuous grip on reality, just as Gotham city slowly begins to devolve into social chaos as well.

That a film so unrepentantly nihilistic for much of its 122-minute runtime would be directed by Todd Phillips, most famous for raunchy R-rated comedies like Old School and The Hangover Trilogy, is just another of Joker's many darkly comic punchlines. Whatever one may feel about Joker, Phillips has established himself as a director to be taken seriously outside of his comfort zone with this film, as evidenced by The Golden Lion award Joker claimed at the Venice Film Festival this past August. Co-written by Phillips and Scott Silver, their screenplay imagines Joker as a cross between De Niro's Travis Bickle and Rupert Pupkin from Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, two films that were obvious sources of inspiration (not only structurally but also visually thanks to Lawrence Sher's gritty cinematography, which looks terrific.) Fans of Batman lore should also appreciate how indebted much of Joker feels both to Frank Miller's Batman: Year One and Alan Moore's Batman: The Killing Joke, each among the best graphic novels I've ever read. Make no mistake, however, Joker is the Joaquin Phoenix show, and as an acting showcase the film is likely to net him another Oscar nomination. With his manic mannerisms, desperate laughter, and hunched-over gait, Phoenix is nearly unrecognizable in the role of Arthur, while proving every bit as memorable in the role as Heath Ledger was previously. The performance goes beyond the physical, however, as he manages to elicit sympathy from viewers in the early moments of the film in which Arthur struggles to mimic the social interactions he views others perform effortlessly, which makes his eventual descent into murder and madness that much more terrifying. It's also, fittingly, not a performance without a certain amount of comedic flourishes, as even at his most frightening Phoenix was still met with a spattering of nervous laughter throughout my theater audience.

Despite all that, it's difficult to say what Phillips and his collaborators hoped to accomplish with Joker based on my initial viewing, and since the experience was (intentionally) an unsettling and uncomfortable one I'm not in a hurry to see it again. I think the claims from some in the blogosphere that Joker will incite copycat crimes or mass shootings are largely unfounded, and seem to be many in a long line of discussions that seek to displace the blame for gun violence away from a lack of common sense gun control towards violent media instead. A more meaningful discussion to be had, in my estimation, is one that seeks to encourage public funding for mental health awareness and counseling. I suppose it may be naive in the eyes of some to view Joker as an anti-bullying film, but it's the most positive reading I can take from the film, as it will hopefully encourage those who do feel victimized by society and struggling with mental health issues to seek counseling from others who will hopefully recognize warning signs as a plea for help to be met with empathy rather than ridicule. Regardless, Joker is ultimately an interesting, if unpleasant reimagining of one of the greatest bad guys in popular media, just be warned you're not likely to leave the theater with a smile by the time the credits roll.

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