A comic book character, the guy who directed The Hangover, and an Oscar-nominated weirdo walk into a bar. What is this, says the barman, some kind of joke?
Wait, I told it wrong. Let me start over. What do you get when you cross the King of Comedy with the clown prince of crime?
You get Joker, an R-rated superhero movie with no super and zero heroes that oozes DC comics but leaves almost everything on the page. Director Todd Phillips — the man behind comedies Starsky and Hutch, Old School and The Hangover movies — reinvents the eternally popular Batman baddie by plonking Joaquin Phoenix into the mean streets of a vintage Martin Scorsese flick. The result is an intense, troubling movie with pretensions to being a modern-day Taxi Driver complete with an incendiary leading performance.
Joaquin Phoenix plays Arthur Fleck, a pathetic loser and loner in Gotham City, sometime in the early 1980s. Arthur is a former inpatient at a psychiatric facility but is now allowed to live with his elderly mother, Penny (Frances Conroy), in her scuzzy apartment. Poor Arthur has a neurological condition that means he is liable to break into screeching laughter at inopportune moments. He has a crush on his single-mom neighbor Sophie (Zazie Beetz) and pines to be a comedian, hero-worshipping cheesy TV host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro). But he can only get a job as a clown in grinning makeup and floppy-toed shoes twirling an advertising banner outside a store, where he is bullied and beaten up by young thugs passing by. One day, after the humiliation and despair become too much to bear, Arthur gets hold of a gun and discovers that his talent is not for comedy but violence.
Joker is solid in both its craft and storytelling. But the film made me ponder what message it may be sending out – that violence is an acceptable solution for these hopeless, cynical times..? I’m not sure that’s very responsible. But I’ll leave you to decide what you draw from it.
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