In case you haven’t noticed, there’s a worldwide revolution going on, from Puerto Rico to Hong Kong to Ecuador to Haiti to Lebanon to Iraq to Chile. The lower classes are fed up with austerity and corruption and are taking to the streets in protest. Some have lost their lives in clashes with police. The unrest appears to be spreading.
Meanwhile, here in the United States, relative calm prevails, so much so that legendary consumer advocate Ralph Nader recently wondered aloud why the millions of people burdened by student loan debt, the millions of people working minimum wage jobs and the millions of people without health insurance haven’t already taken to the streets in protest. How much more abuse can they handle before they finally act?
That’s basically the theme of Joker, the controversial blockbuster film directed by Todd Phillips and featuring Joaquin Phoenix as the latest celluloid incarnation of the DC Comics supervillain. Phoenix is phenomenal as Arthur Fleck, a mentally ill man in his late 30s living with his mother who through repeated failure, abuse and neglect is transformed into Joker, whose abusers “get what they fucking deserve.”
Phillips sets his anti-hero origin story in early 1980s Gotham city, a gritty, claustrophobic metropolis where Arthur, whose mental condition causes him to burst into laughter at inopportune moments, works as a clown for a company that hires him out to businesses and children’s parties. The film begins with Arthur in his clown get-up being beaten in an alley by a gang of youths with a sign he had been twirling in front of a liquidation sale.
Everything must go!
Arthur drags his battered body home to the squalid apartment he shares with his mother and escapes into his favorite fantasy, a black-and-white late-night TV talk show hosted by Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro). A fledgling stand-up comedian who also suffers from delusions, Arthur imagines he’s a guest on the show, and from his unreliable point of view, we literally see him on the set, chatting with Murray Franklin. It’s only a hallucination, but by the film’s end, Arthur’s dream ominously comes true.
Phoenix lost 50 pounds to play the role and throughout the film twists and contorts his emaciated frame as he dances to the music inside Arthur’s head, which includes Frank Sinatra’s “Send in the Clowns” and “That’s Life,” the latter of which serves as an inspirational anthem for the struggling would-be comic:
“I said, that’s life (that’s life) and as funny as it may seem/ Some people get their kicks/
Stompin’ on a dream …”
Arthur returns to work after his beating, where he discovers the business wants to be reimbursed for the destroyed sign. A co-worker gives him a gun to defend himself, but the gun falls out during a visit to a children’s hospital and Arthur is fired. On the way home, Arthur is jumped on the subway by three drunken executive bros, employees of Thomas Wayne Enterprises (father of Bruce Wayne, aka, Batman).
The executive bros are on the verge of giving him a vicious beating when Arthur pulls the gun out and shoots two of them dead. He tracks the third one down and shoots him in the subway stairwell. Witnesses report seeing a clown fleeing the scene of the crime.
Overnight, the crime inspires a mass movement of people wearing clown masks and carrying signs like “kill the rich” to take to the grimy streets of Gotham. Wayne Enterprises and the rest of Gotham’s oligarchs haven’t been kicking in on the trickle-down, and a scary number of peasants are revolting. All they need is a leader.
That unlikely person turns out to be Arthur, but before becoming Joker, he must endure further torments. Gotham eliminates its mental health program, cutting off Arthur from his therapist and the seven prescription drugs he takes to remain remotely sane. He learns his mother had an affair with Thomas Wayne, making Arthur the half-brother of Bruce Wayne (who grows up to be Batman). His relationship with the girl down the hall turns out to be imaginary, and Arthur is the coiled spring in a Jack-in-the-Box, waiting to explode.
The final humiliation leads to his ultimate and triumphant transformation. Arthur debuts his stand-up act at an open-mic night, suffers stage fright, laughs spontaneously and stammers his way through a disastrous set. My favorite Arthur joke goes something like this: “When I was growing up, when I told people I was going to be a comedian, they laughed at me. Well, they’re not laughing now.” It’d be funny if Andy Kaufmann said it, but Arthur is no Andy Kaufmann.
Video of Arthur’s uncomfortable performance catches the attention of Murray Franklin, who invites Arthur on his TV show to poke further fun at him.
Arthur has other ideas. His transformation into Joker, much of it portrayed through the quirky rhythmic choreography of Phoenix’s scrawny limbs and extreme close-ups of the actor’s contorted, sunken-in facial expressions, is almost complete. By the time he begins applying the pancake make-up for his TV appearance, Arthur has become a dangerously insane individual, even though he claims he feels better being off the pills.
The film’s final act is frightening as Arthur hurtles toward his inevitable destiny. It’s also beautifully filmed as this modern day Raskolnikov, hair dyed green and in full clown regalia, descends the steep staircase from his apartment one last time, dancing to Gary Glitter’s “Rock & Roll Part 2” as he makes his way to the TV studio for his 15 minutes of fame.
There’s a moment where he pauses behind the curtain before coming on stage and sways to the big band intro music. It’s the song in his head that he’s been dancing to the whole time. He’s finally in sync with his insanity. The transformation is complete. When he steps through the curtain, he’s Joker.
No spoilers here but suffice to say Joker becomes the figurehead of what amounts to Gotham’s version of Occupy Wall Street or perhaps President Donald J. Trump’s anti-establishment “deplorables.” As Joker basks in the mob’s adulation, his eyes sparkle, and he repaints his broken-toothed smile with his own blood.
Like many landmark films, Joker has been both viciously panned and lavishly praised by film critics. Some critics claim the film might drive “incels,” misogynist millennial men who claim they can’t get a date because today’s women are too liberated, to commit violence. They may have a point, considering neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer, rife with incel members, has enthusiastically endorsed the film.
Other critics have praised the film’s realism, which runs counter to most superhero/supervillain movies from the Marvel and DC Comics universes, which themselves have come under recent criticism for their formulaic construction.
I count myself in the latter group of critics. Joker may take place in a fictitious (but realistic) city in the 1980s, but the issues it confronts resonate with our own time. Joker himself is insane, but Arthur’s struggle, slaving away in a meaningless low-paying job, seeking companionship in a hostile and lonely world, having his dreams constantly stomped on, is universally human.
That’s what makes Joker a work of art, a status I don’t bequeath lightly. It’s managed to capture the zeitgeist of the nation.
Funny thing is, I left the theater with an empty feeling. We’ve got our own Joker in the White House whose followers are just as fanatical as the comic book character’s. Lately, this this orange-tinted clown has been suggesting a shooting civil war will break out if he’s impeached and removed from office or somehow fails to get reelected. Serious people think armed revolt is a very real possibility.
What’s it going to take to get people in the streets? Ralph Nader asks. Joker provides the answer: a crazy person.
It’s a conclusion that presently is difficult to dispute.