‘Joker’ is no laughing matter

Robert De Niro and Joaquin Phoenix in Joker

“When the heroes go off stage, the clowns come on.” – Heinrich Heine

Just like how comic books eventually developed lines for their more popular villains, the movies have caught up to do the same. We’ve had films for characters who started as adversaries but quickly became and are better known as heroes like The Punisher and Deadpool, but now we’ve moved onto the unrepentant monsters. First Venom, and here Joker.

Set in Gotham City during the 1980s (for some reason), this film is (as it’s been touted in the press) a King of Comedy knockoff that mixes in attributes from the works of Paul Schrader. However, it does not measure up to those, nor even to the likes of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer or Roman.

Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is a middle-aged professional clown and aspiring comic who has a condition that causes him to burst out laughing at random moments. Caring for his invalid mother (Frances Conroy), he spends his nights with her watching a talk show hosted by Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro) and wishing he could one day be a guest. But things take an unfortunate turn when he loses his job and government-assistance programs which, combined with fed up with constant harassment from random fellow citizens, precipitates a violent lashing out.

If you follow Batman anything, you’ve immediately sussed out the problem: this isn’t the Joker. The man depicted here has as much to do with Bob Kane’s creation as the character Matthew Modine played in Full Metal Jacket. A basic point of the Joker is that he’s supposed to be a mysterious figure with no fixed origin. The closest one was of course The Killing Joke, but even there it was made clear that the flashbacks were coming from an unreliable narrator. What’s here is more or less a total invention of the screenwriters and really should have been made independently of this IP.

It’s that connection to the material that ruins the proceedings. Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) and even Alfred (Douglas Hodge) are characterized horribly, presented as cruel jerks of the highest order. And then there’s the ending, which has a truly terrible retcon (one that hopefully will not stick) to a major story event that did not even need to be depicted here in the first place.

While the consideration for the treatment of mental illness is admirable, it can get muddied. He spirals downwards as the film goes on, but it’s not clear how much of that is due to stopping medication and how much would have happened anyway. Plus the direct allusions to John Wayne Gacy and Bernard Goetz are there more as memberberries than to make any significant statement.

If there is a strong point in the movie’s favor, it’s the acting. Phoenix certainly rises to the occasion. He’s no Mark Hamill, but it’s hard to compare when they are playing what might as well be entirely different people. De Niro is quite funny whenever he makes his intermittent appearances. The production design is effective as well, getting across the proper mood and atmosphere.

Up next will be Mr. J’s sidekick Harley Quinn striking out on her own to lead Birds of Prey. Let’s hope those behind it actually know the material that they’re working with.

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