“All it takes is one bad day to reduce the sanest man alive to lunacy,” wrote Alan Moore in the iconic Batman: The Killing Joke. “That’s how far the world is from where I am. Just one bad day.”
Those words clearly weighed on filmmaker Todd Phillips and his co-writer Scott Silver as they tackled one of the most seemingly Sisyphean tasks in modern superhero cinema: making an origin story about the Joker. Simply titled Joker, the film shows what happens when “one bad day” is actually “one bad lifetime,” and what happens when a world seemingly devoid of empathy pushes people too far.
Despite all my cynicism and trepidation, I am pleased to report that this movie is really, really good.
Set in the fictional Gotham City in the late ‘70s/early ‘80s, Joker is a slick, heady pastiche of The King of Comedy, Network, Dog Day Afternoon, and 80 years of DC Comics stories distilled into a supremely stylish and affecting package. While I had my doubts about the movie after whatever it was Jared Leto did in Suicide Squad, Joker is a compelling character study that is propelled to greatness on the lithe, bony shoulders of Joaquin Phoenix, who delivers a powerhouse performance as the perpetually browbeaten wannabe comedian Arthur Fleck. (The fact that his name can be shortened to A. Fleck is just a hilarious bonus.)
What I did not expect was for Joker to be a shockingly relevant (oftentimes on-the-nose) rumination on privilege, wealth disparity, and mental health stigmatization that also gives a fresh twist one of the most unreliable narrators in modern fiction.
Joker follows the life and times of Arthur Fleck, a good-natured but emotionally stunted man who ekes out a living working as a clown to support himself and his ailing mother while he pursues his dream of being a stand-up comedian. Suffering from a neurological condition known as pseudobulbar affect, Arthur is prone to fits of uncontrollable laughter at inappropriate moments. It is a condition which, more often than not, gets Arthur into trouble, earns him scowls and sideways glances, and contributes to a crushing sense of loneliness that characterizes his life.
“The worst part about having a mental illness is people expect you to behave as if you don’t,” Arthur scrawls in his notebook, which serves as both a social worker-mandated chronicle of his mental well-being and a process document for his stand-up act. Filling with manic scribblings, half-thoughts, and torn-out pictures of naked women, it feels like both a cry for help and the kind of cursed manifesto one might find in the wake of a tragedy.
The world of Joker’s Gotham City is a dilapidated, hostile place where uncomfortable proximity breeds friction, frayed nerves, and tension so thick you could cut it with a knife. Wracked by economic malaise, much like New York City leading up to the 1977 blackout, Gotham is a powder keg in search of a match. Every day the situation is exacerbated by wealth inequality and privilege—personified by Thomas Wayne (played to sneering perfection by Brett Cullen) and his Wall Street cronies—and the relentless scythe of politicians cutting funding for social services that the city’s economically disadvantaged rely upon for essential services. In Arthur’s case, it leaves him without the support structure of a social worker and no reliable means to get the medications that he desperately needs.
Arthur seems terminally unable to catch a break and the pervasive ugliness of Gotham City pushes him to his brink one night. When Arthur’s affliction leads to an unexpected altercation on a subway, that “one bad day” arrives at last and there is no turning back from it. Through a sudden, jarring, grisly act of violence, Arthur lights the proverbial match that sets Gotham ablaze and unlocks something inside of himself, which leads to his eventual metamorphosis into the titular Joker, a nickname given to him by an unexpected source. It’s like watching a Rube-Goldberg device powered by human misery slowly transform a lonely man into an unlikely symbol of chaos and resistance. While the newly christened Joker’s big Network moment approaches “We live in a society” meme territory at times, his message does have some merit to it: the world is in desperate need of some empathy.
Let there be no doubt about it: Joaquin Phoenix is throwing his hat in the ring for the title of “The Greatest Joker of All Time,” and he is a serious contender. With a uniquely unsettling physicality and a quiet intensity, Phoenix creates a portrait of a man desperate to belong, wracked with delusions and insecurities that keep his dreams perpetually out of arm’s reach. Phoenix’s work is made easier by an all-star cast for him to bounce off of, including Robert De Niro as the late-night talk show host Murray Franklin, Zazie Beetz as Arthur’s kindly neighbor Sophie, Frances Conroy as Arthur’s addled mother Penny, and Glenn Fleshler as a conniving coworker, just to name a few. Despite its muted color palette, Joker is a world full of colorful characters, many of whom will stick with you long after the credits roll.
With Joker, Todd Phillips has proven that he is much more than “The Hangover guy” and created one of the most unexpected and rewarding comic book movies since Logan. But simply calling Joker a “comic book movie” does it a disservice; it is a story that feels like it could be about any number of disaffected people who are marginalized by the ruthless world in which we live. If you aren’t convinced of the merits of universal healthcare after this, then you might just be a bad person.
While the film sometimes tells rather than shows, even going so far as to have Arthur plainly state its thesis at one point, the finished product is so satisfying that it feels like a minor quibble. If you don’t leave your preconceptions at the door for Joker, then the last laugh will truly be on you.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Images: Warner Bros.