“JOKER”: Not fun…but unforgettable

My rating: B+ (Opens wide on Oct. 4)   121 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Published October 2, 2019 by Robert W. Butler at Butler’s Cinema Scene

If Ingmar Bergman and Lars von Trier teamed up to make a superhero movie, the result would be just like “Joker.”

Less conventional comic book material than existential scream, Todd Phillips’ take on the legendary D.C. villain gives us Joaquin Phoenix as a hapless loser transformed by isolation and grief into a clown-faced avenging angel.

This grim — as in NOT FUN — yarn unfolds not in some make-believe alternative universe (the traditional Tim Burton-ized abode of comic book sagas) but in a Gotham City that looks, sounds and seems even to smell like the dystopian NYC of the 1970s, replete with wall-to-wall graffiti and mounds of garbage thanks to a strike by city workers.

There’s nothing supernatural offered by Phillips and Scott Silver’s screenplay, no fantastic science fiction machines or surgeries, nobody gifted with special powers.

Just the eternally miserable Arthur Fleck (Phoenix), a human wraith doomed by genetics and circumstance to live in brutal isolation.

Arthur  works as a professional clown (children’s parties, sidewalk huckstering) and aspires to do stand up — which is odd because he is stupendously unfunny.

Street punks beat him up. When nervous — pretty much all the time — he breaks into uncontrollable laughter.  It’s actually a medical condition for which he takes an array of prescriptions.  Except that the city agency that provides drugs and counseling (Arthur spent some of his young adulthood in a mental ward) has lost its funding. Now he’s on his own.

“The worst thing about having mental illness,” he observes, “is that people expect you to act like you don’t.”

At home in a peeling apartment he feeds and bathes his aged mother (Frances Conroy); their relationship is essentially loving, but it’s pretty clear that Mom is delusional.  She insists on sending pleading letters to her long-ago employer Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), an oligarchical fascist making a run for mayor. (Yes, that Thomas Wayne, father of young Bruce, who will one day become Joker’s arch nemesis Batman.)

But then Arthur has his own issues with reality. He fantasizes that he appears on the late-night talk show of his favorite TV personality, Murray Franklin (Robert DeNiro). Movie buffs will no doubt pick up some residual vibes from Martin Scorsese’s 1982 “King of Comedy,” in which DeNiro played a pathologically inept standup comic.

In the film’s nightmarish high point the newly jobless Arthur, still in clown costume, is attacked on the subway by a trio of boozy Brooks Brothers-suited young stockbrokers;  he responds with gunfire.

The city’s underclass is energized by the deaths of these Yuppie scum; soon the streets and trains are clogged with mobs of disaffected copy cats wearing clown masks and makeup. Without meaning to, Arthur has spawned a movement.

While avoiding a couple of police detectives (Shea Whigham, Bill Camp), Arthur tries to find some sort of order in his life. There’s a hint of an intimate relationship with the single mother (Zadie Beetz) who lives down the hall…but don’t get your hopes up.

Incident after demoralizing incident pushes Arthur ever closer to a total homicidal meltdown that will result in his complete transformation into Joker.

This is daring, almost self-destructive filmmaking of searing power. The story unfolds 20 years before the appearance of Batman, so there’s no hero in the usual sense. “Joker” is an origin tale that asks us to understand and perhaps even sympathize with a fiendish killer.

At the same time, the film takes (or at least exploits) a kill-the-rich political stance that many viewers will find problematical. Tossing even more gasoline onto the fire are remarks by  Phillips, maker of popular yuk fests (“The Hangover”) who now says political correctness has killed comedy. His bitterness saturates every frame of “Joker.”

This  unbearably dark experience is saved by Phoenix’s performance, which turns an ethical train wreck into something you can’t tear your eyes away from. Arthur Fleck is the kind of nodding, bizarro character that we all instinctively move away from on the bus…yet Phoenix makes him achingly, terrifyingly human.

And it’s an amazing physical performance as well. Phoenix appears to have starved himself into a state not unlike a concentration camp survivor; he’s a writhing knot of muscle, bone and ever-building rage.

Forget escapism. “Joker” rubs our faces in angst, yet it is brilliant in its ugliness.

| Robert W. Butler

Read the original review and more reviews at Butler’s Cinema Scene

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Robert W. Butler for 41 years reviewed films for the Kansas City Star. In May 2011 he was downsized.

He couldn’t take the hint.

OKAY, so here’s the deal. I write mostly about movies. One good thing about no longer writing for the paper is that I’m free to ignore the big dumb Hollywood turkeys that don’t interest me. So don’t expect every blessed release to be written about here. Many films aren’t worth the effort. Besides, at my age it’s not the $8. It’s the two hours.

UPDATE: OCTOBER, 2014: Well, here’s an interesting twist. The Star wants me back as a freelance film reviewer!!! Apparently enough time has passed that they cannot be accused of firing me so that they can rehire me at a fraction of my original pay (I gather the federal government frowns upon that practice.) So from now on I will probably be reviewing a movie a week for the newspaper.