I hated this movie and that’s no joke. (In the spirit of full disclosure, my wife thought it was a great piece of social commentary.) Officially a prequel to the Batman series, this parable takes place in the not-too-distant past, during a protracted garbage strike in Gotham City. Garbage is not only literal but figurative, a symbol of how our protagonist views the world: a miserable place full of unhappy people. He may be the unhappiest of all.
Recently released from a mental hospital where he should have remained, Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) has no business walking the streets. He is given to uncontrollable bursts of laughter but there’s nothing funny about his demeanor. He is delusional and dangerous, barely clinging to his job as a party clown. Arthur aspires to a career as a stand-up comedian, like the guests on his favorite late-night TV show, hosted by Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro, in a reversal of his role in the unforgettable King of Comedy).
Phoenix throws himself into this difficult role with his usual fervor. His skeletal appearance adds to the creepiness of his character, whose fantasies about a female neighbor and his beloved TV host provide passing relief from the bleak world he inhabits. Over the course of the film his visage draws ever closer to the Joker as we know him from Batman comic books, TV shows and movies.
Todd Phillips, who directed and wrote the film (with Scott Silver), uses Fleck as a victim of a hostile society that exalts what we now think of as the 1% to the detriment of the average citizen. Wealth and power are personified by the formidable figure of Thomas Wayne, who declares himself as a candidate for Mayor of Gotham. His young son, we learn, is Bruce Wayne.
Is this where we’ve landed? The only way to deal with contemporary issues and hope to attract an audience is in the guise of a comic book movie? Perhaps so, but I found nothing to enjoy in this film, including Phoenix’s deeply committed performance. The Joker-to-be is a sick character whose bitter laughter runs through the entire picture.
I welcome films that grapple with today’s issues in a dramatic or comedic mode, but I took no pleasure wallowing in ugliness for two hours. That’s all Joker has to offer.