Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is a clown. Seriously. He slaps on the white face paint, a baldpate with frizzy tufts of hair on the sides and a button nose and attempts to make people laugh. He works at the local children’s hospital, entertaining sick kids and their families. He wears sandwich boards or twirls signs on sidewalks for shops advertising sales or announcing that they’re going out of business.
It would be a stretch to call what Arthur does a hustle, but he’s not alone. There’s a whole crop of low-rent clowns for sale, eking out an existence somewhere on the far side of the margins of Gotham City. The version of the DC comics’ locale in Joker is worse than grim or even gritty. It somehow makes the New York City of the 1970s look inviting.
Gotham City, as imagined by Todd Phillips (The Hangover trilogy) for this standalone DC feature, is a step or two away from war-torn, only because no one feels there’s anything worth fighting for in this god-forsaken place. Even its would-be politicians, like Mayoral candidate Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), make it sound like hope is a mythic, all-but-forgotten dream of the past.
As far as clowns go, though, Arthur seems highly self-aware. He’s in therapy, because he knows that something is wrong with him (and the whole world, for that matter) and he wants to figure out if he can get better. He laughs too hard, too long and at the wrong times, but at least he’s still laughing. Laughter has gone the way of hope in Gotham City, except for on the late-night show Arthur watches with his mother (Frances Conroy) that is hosted by Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), a bellicose king of comedy reigning over a desperate kingdom.
Arthur longs to be discovered by Franklin, to sit in that studio audience and be called onstage to offer a joke or two or a heartfelt plea to remember to do the right thing that will touch everyone and make Gotham a better place. Talk about a wild and crazy dream. It’ll never happen.
And that’s the point of Joker. Nothing good can ever survive in this world, so everyone might as well go a little bit crazy. Arthur lacks the tools to determine what a “little bit” looks like and Gotham City keeps shoveling on overflowing helpings of grief and nastiness, enough to bury Arthur.
Of course, when he claws his way out of this metaphoric grave, he’s a changed man. The first thing he does is find a couple of patsies to replace him in that dead zone, but now it’s all very literal. Arthur kills three guys on the subway. It starts off as self-defense, but along the way, Arthur discovers a sense of agency, purpose and freedom in the act. He’s uncaged and unhinged.
As much as the idea of Arthur Fleck seems tiring and demands pity from the audience, something in him (specifically Phoenix’s perfectly toxic performance) reminds me of Edward Norton in Fight Club. He can’t quite make the right adjustment to the world around him, as he is. He needs an alter-ego, another persona capable of taking the hurt and translating it for him in a way that others will recognize and respond to.
Phoenix’s Joker fashions everything, all the pain and frustration, into a weapon, the tip of a spear that can rally others who are feeling the same.
There was a line in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, spoken by Alfred (Michael Caine), the trusted advisor and butler to Bruce Wayne/Batman (Christian Bale), about that film’s version of the Joker (Heath Ledger), or at least men like him. Alfred speaks of terrorists who don’t seek riches or high-minded political gains, but instead wreak havoc on the world, just so they can watch it burn.
In The Dark Knight, Ledger’s clown prince of crime truly wanted to start fires and would probably go on lighting fuses, even striking the very match that would consume himself at some point. Phoenix’s Joker is a different kind of clown altogether. Forget the fire starters and the symbolic leaders of change. This Joker is wild and on the loose because the man Arthur Fleck could have been is dead. All that remains is a shell of a man calling out to a desperate and lonely world. (Opens Oct. 4) (R) Grade: B