9 Oct 2019

Review - Joker

From At The Movies, 7:31 pm on 9 October 2019

Joker is the latest outing of the popular Batman villain – but this time more a gritty character study than an action thriller, starring Joaquin Phoenix and Robert De Niro.

I’m not sure why ‘Joker’ has divested himself of the definite article, but in the latest grimy manifestation of Old Green-Hair, he likes to be simply called “Joker”. 

Though in fact, in most of the movie he’s called Arthur Fleck. He’s a troubled soul who lives in the rundown tenements of Gotham City with his mum. He’s also got a job as a part-time clown.  No wonder he’s in therapy.

As played by Joaquin Phoenix, even pre-Joker Arthur is already pretty eccentric, prone to outbursts of laughter at inappropriate times, and being – at best – misjudged by strangers, and – at worst – beaten up by them.

Of course the jobs available to a part-time clown are both limited and risky. The fact is there are people who don’t really like clowns, particularly ones that burst into guffaws without warning. 

And in the unspecified period when Joker is set – sort of mid ‘70s or early ‘80s – it’s frankly a jungle out there.

The one source of pleasure for Arthur and his mother is the late night comedy of talk-show host Murray Franklin, played by Robert De Niro.

Robert De Niro has been terrific in lots of comedies over the years, but he’s not a natural comic.  Mind you, a lot of comedians of that era were pretty unfunny too.

Murray sees a clip of Arthur’s stage show – yes, he’s not only a part-time clown, he’s an aspiring comedian too – and decides it would be good TV to get Arthur a guest spot on his show. What could possibly go wrong?

So let’s see. We’ve got a person with a tenuous grasp on reality anyway, living with his equally deluded mum. He’s a would-be clown, despite no discernible clowning talent, and in a clown-unfriendly city, full of aggressive punks.

He’s about to be hauled in front of a live TV audience and, in all probability, humiliated for entertainment purposes.

Is there any way to turn the screws any tighter? Let’s rub Arthur’s nose in his own lack of success by bringing out an arrogant billionaire, revelling in a sense of entitlement. 

We’re talking about the future Batman, Bruce Wayne’s dad.

I don’t think we need to labour the comparisons between Thomas Wayne’s ambitions and any real-life, wealthy ratbags with political pretension.  

But clearly Joker is making other points here - partly about how rotten life is, I suppose, but also looking for the reality within a well-loved fictional character.

Except in my case, the phrase “well-loved fictional character” slightly overstates my attachment to the Joker. He is after all, a villain from a comic book, whose sole purpose is to provide something for Batman to combat and eventually defeat by the final credits.

Removing Batman from the equation and substituting a depressing and derivative story – Joker owes a lot to old Robert De Niro films like Taxi Driver and King of Comedy – is certainly a bold idea.

And it’s ironic that a film resting – in theory at any rate – on clowns, comics and comedians, should be almost entirely devoid of laughs. 

I get it. It’s a character study. And I’m sure Joaquin Phoenix will get a lot of attention at awards time. But it’s no fun at all.

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