The Joker is one of the most vivid comic book villains in culture. In the ’70s, as a very young kid, I loved Cesar Romero’s portrayal on TV. His mania and his bright color embodied the arch-enemy. Romero was a dancer and he used his talents wonderfully.
Then came Tim Burton’s “Batman” with Jack Nicholson as the manic mischief maker. Nicholson used his devilish smile to great effect and the actor had an excellent sarcasm. What was new in Nicholson was the Joker’s devilishness. His brash almost sensual sense of unease. In one scene, Jack’s Joker admires the art of Francis Bacon. Nicholson was the pop art clown as a counter-culture force. The “Easy Rider” in rainbow hues. Though Nicholson played him with a nonchalant aloofness, this Joker was still based on Romero’s comic camp with nothing nasty within.
Suddenly, things got darker. Terrorism came to New York City with 9-11, and in Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” Heath Ledger played the villainous clown with a new sinister spirit to underscore our national unease. His performance was visceral and frightening with an almost Exorcist-like intensity.
Now it is 2019 and here is “Joker” directed by Todd Phillips (“The Hangover”) starring Joaquin Phoenix. Phoenix is Arthur Fleck, a sickly party clown who dresses up in patchy clothes and does odd jobs. He is sweaty and has physical tics and is on many, many medications. As he has the condition of laughing hysterically at inopportune moments, Arthur is repeatedly beaten in public. He works at a children’s hospital as a diversionary clown, and he does seem to have affection for kids. This makes him sympathetic.
But he also has ambition, wanting to be a comedian. Because he has an illness which makes socialization difficult, he is harshly refused. His only respite is the sight of his glib next door neighbor Sophie (Zazie Beetz), and taking care of his mom, (Francis Conroy), who is obsessed with Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen).
Phoenix’s Joker is a genuine anti-hero, full of the knowledge of Kafka and Camus. Skinny to the point of bone on bone with a saturnine face, this is the pop art version of The Hunger Artist. His sloping silent movie-era face is terrific and recalls the Surrealist Antonin Artaud. At times, Arthur does reach out, mostly to kids, and to young Bruce Wayne (Dante Pereira-Olson), but he is rebuffed at every turn.
Arthur needs medication but his aid is denied due to government maneuvering. Almost by chance, he is given a gun. On a fateful subway trip (which slightly recalls Bernard Goetz) during a disastrous laughing fit, there is no turning back.
For Arthur, appearing on a talk show is the only way to validate himself. Like Rupert Pupkin (played by Robert de Niro, who appears here) in “The King of Comedy” Arthur is obsessed with celebrity. Fame seems the only fix.
The best moments in the film are the naturalistic scenes: Arthur with children and Arthur painfully wanting attention from Sophie. His downcast and sinister, yet oddly mercurial face says it all. He is like a lost dog in the rain, a dreamer bereft. As with the pliable Johnny Depp in “Edward Scissorhands,” dialogue is unnecessary.
Phoenix’s dancing is also vivid, imagining Joker’s story in vivid terms of ache and suffering, again recalling Artaud’s belief in theater as an experience in locomotion and heart of sadness and speed.
Where the film weakens is in its theme of rich versus poor and the story’s tendency to over-explain. The wealthy people of Gotham are shown as thuggish manikins and the story loses focus over concepts of occupation and the snooty rich.
More personal is Joker’s individualist story, his identification with talk host Murray Franklin and his need for Mr. Wayne to accept him, not as a creep but as his son.
Things come to eerie fruition when Arthur appears on the show with Murray Franklin (De Niro) and violently confronts him. It is a concussive and jarring moment, echoing Christine Chubbuck, while making blunt commentary on pop culture and film history: Martin Scorsese’s vision of self-righteous bloody saviors, of righting wrongs and karmic retribution is dead. This is the age of transgression, of impulse and anxiety, of smiles and frowns with the click of an iPhone.
Even the last scene showing Arthur (confined in a mental hospital in bloody white sneakers) can be seen as a rebuke of Jack Nicholson, that his Joker should have taken the homicidal way out.
As disquieting as Joaquin Phoenix is, his Joker expresses our time perfectly. It is only the story itself, which doesn’t add much to the force of this hypnotic character.
Write Ian at firstname.lastname@example.org