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‘JOKER’ IS RELENTLESSLY GRIM

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.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at leonardmaltin.com. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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