Friday, October 4, 2019

Clowning Around: JOKER

Joker represents strained seriousness from two angles. It’s a comedy writer-director in Hangover helmer Todd Phillips trying his hand at a character drama, and it’s a subgenre in the superhero movie dressing up in the clothes of more penetrating artsy fare. Given that our culture spent the last decade telling us to take both comedians and superheroes Very Seriously as signifiers of Great Import, this collision was, I suppose, inevitable. (And yet, recall Logan, a superior comic book movie pitched at adults and drawing upon decades of accumulated character history while embracing its goofy/cool sci-fi elements, was released just a couple years ago and was all the better for not resorting to playing prestige drag.) Here we have a movie that purports to tell an origin story for Batman’s most famous arch-nemesis, but in a simmering unease of ground-level mental anguish, shorn of all but the most obligatory references to the comic book lore. It’s the story of a mentally ill loner (Joaquin Phoenix) whose tenuous grasp on his place in society is crumbling. His elderly mother (Frances Conroy) is ailing; his day job as a clown is as depressing as his dream of becoming a standup comedian is unlikely. He’s prone to fits of uncontrollable nervous laughter, appears skeletally thin, and moves through the world in a near-constant state of flinching from others. This is a fantastic performance from one of our best. He inhabits the role’s cliches so fully that it becomes intense and wounded and something like real, or at least imbued with a ragged, gnarled discomfort that comic book movies otherwise studiously avoid. Phoenix sees this as an excuse for a wormy, squiggly, loose-limbed mania. He cowers in the corner or slides Astaire steps down a corridor, dancing pantomime or twitching in anguish. It’s raw and wild, and yet so studiously performative that its somehow both vividly alive and wholly performative. It’s electric like a fake live wire in a haunted house.

The movie that surrounds Phoenix — thin tin-eared pop psychology, contradictory sociopolitical moralizing, and clanging winks to comics past — doesn’t exactly let him down, but never gives the rest of the characters or situations the same level of introspection or interest. Nonetheless, its immaculately designed crumbling urban squalor — Gotham has never looked more grotty, though I missed Nolan’s elegance and Burton’s Gothic shadows and Schumacher’s baroque camp — shot with grainy glamor and scored with thrumming uneasy strings proves Phillips is a fine copycat craftsman. He’s taking his cues from a collision at the influences factory. The film is widely reported as a cross between Scorsese classics Taxi Driver (Joker’s simmering discontent, societal isolation, and violent impulses a match for Travis Bickle’s) and King of Comedy (an unhealthy obsession with a talk show host, here played by that film’s star, Robert DeNiro), but it surely also takes its cue from the countless big city vigilante fare of the 70s and 80s. (There’s a Bernie Goetz-style inciting incident that takes Gotham’s class warfare from a low boil to a raging protest, a city with a Death Wish.) Here, though, the politics of Gotham are a grubby muddle. A city with sleazy rich guys (like a certain Wayne patriarch) who are nonetheless victims of a populist uprising and a violent mob of impoverished citizens who carry signs that say “Resist” carries with it interestingly confused valences no matter how beautifully lensed. If Phillips can’t populate his secondhand style with a similarly nuanced point of view and captivatingly conflicted ideas, he still manages to make a decent canvas on which his lead can create.

Phoenix is precise even when the movie isn’t sure what to say, or double-underlines its biggest faux-intellectual symbolic gestures. (At one point he sees a sign that says “Don’t Forget to Smile” and Sharpies out the “Forget to.” Get it?) No other character is allowed to be more than a cog in his story — even when played by such great actors as Zazie Beetz, Shea Whigham, Bill Camp, and Brian Tyree Henry, who spark some life into totally flat roles — because the movie is so solipsistically wedded to its main character’s mindset. This can create odd moments of frisson, where the movie’s empty provocations — violence or cringe humor that is somehow never as jolting or uncomfortable as it would be in, say, a Scorsese picture, or a Jody Hill project — come uncomfortably close to making its villain protagonist a sympathetic underdog, nearly excusing his sociopathy. But Phoenix takes care to shy away from antihero temptation and complicates what, in lesser hands, would’ve seemed as routine as it is. He make sure Joker is just a pathetic man, undoubtedly a victim of society (funding cuts for his low-income mental health treatment, for starters) but nevertheless going about his life in unhealthy patterns. It’s like a dark, simple little character-based comic miniseries, with Phoenix as the artist who gets to give his own riff on a classic figure. In the end, it’s engaging and interesting almost despite itself, and never as upsetting as it thinks it is. No, it’s small, and sad, ending not in triumph or action or thrills or chills, but one individual’s pain metastasizing into a city at large. That it’s set to fester as long as DC needs stories from Gotham is one thing. But that real life individuals are emboldened to make their pain (real or imagined) society’s pain is another entirely. Even if the movie isn’t quite equipped to explore it with rigorous nuance, the filmmakers’ fingers are on this terrible pulse.

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