I don’t think there has ever been a more malleable fictional character than the Joker. He’s the kind of personality that can be bent and shaped into varieties of madness. Every actor who has played the part has delivered a completely different experience, from Cesar Romero‘s bubblegummy prankster to Jack Nicholson‘s iconic villain and Heath Ledger‘s unforgettable chaos guru. Even Mark Hamill‘s animated version is uniquely vicious. It’s like we get to see different shades of the same awesome colour. In Joker, it’s Joaquin Phoenix’s turn. His take is somewhere between Romero and Hamill, and it’s a deeply engaging performance.
As we meet him, Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) is a clown-for-hire, picked on by colleagues, bullied by nasty street kids, seeing a psychotherapist for possible mental instability. At home, he tends to his ailing mother (Frances Conroy), who herself is not quite right in the head. But they share an affection that feels real. They also share a love for Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), the late-night talk show host who is of course Arthur’s great idol as a comedian, just as Jerry Lewis was to De Niro in Scorsese’s The King of Comedy (1982). This time Arthur is the aspiring comedian and De Niro takes on the Lewis role.
The movie is all build-up. Because we know he will inevitably transform into his green-haired, three-piece-suited alter ego, the first two-thirds of Joker are kinda relentless in their pummelling of poor Arthur. It’s not a very pleasant experience. Nothing goes right for him. He gets beaten up. He gets fired. He laughs when he shouldn’t. He frequently hallucinates. He discovers something shocking about his mother. After a while it becomes exhausting to empathise with him, not because he doesn’t deserve it, but because the story never lets up. There is no respite from the abuse.
Joker is directed by Todd Phillips, who’s mostly known for R-rated comedies. This is unlike his other movies, especially the first Hangover (2009). There is not a laugh to be had here, which is ironic, given the movie’s title. It’s a joyless, psychologically gruesome exercise in breaking a person’s spirit and pushing him over the edge.
If Phoenix hadn’t been so gifted and charismatic, I would’ve walked out feeling crippled. He is endlessly thrilling to watch, contorting his thin frame, slowly unfurling the madness in his eyes. I don’t know if I buy his Joker laugh, but he convinces me that his Arthur Fleck could plausibly become an anarchistic psychopath created by his crumbling society.
I suppose the movie creates the right environment for the Joker’s birth. He’s clearly not a character raised on sweets and cupcakes. But a little levity goes a long way, and the Joker, more so than any of Batman’s other foes, thrives on sardonic levity. Don’t get me wrong – Joker is very well-made. Its production design is crisp and attentive. Its mood is effective, for better or worse. It succeeds at telling a tragic Joker story. It just lacks much needed balance.
Images courtesy of Roadshow Films