Thursday, October 10, 2019

This Joker's Gone Wild, Shot To Hole-y Hell

Joaquin Phoenix as the title character in "Joker" directed by Todd Phillips
. Warner 


Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Thursday, October 10, 2019

The New York of the 1980s--an era of grimy, gritty perilous trial and survival.  A Gotham City teeming with crime, drugs and indifference.  Todd Phillips frolics in the "greed is good" decade, dumping helpings of Martin Scorsese movies about loners and obsessives ("Taxi Driver", "The King Of Comedy") on a monochromatic canvas. "Joker" flickers but never fully lights up.  Not even a macabre, fearsome performance by Joaquin Phoenix rescues this bleak satirical effort loosely tied to the DC Comics stable.

Mr. Phillips and fellow producer Bradley Cooper take their "Hangover" franchise of crude juvenility and put savage edge into "Joker" but the character's poorly written foundation wobbles.  Arthur Fleck's issues are plenty: abandonment, violence, mental challenges and uncontrollable nasty laughter not unlike that from Robert De Niro's Max Cady character in Mr. Scorsese's "Cape Fear" (1991).  (Arthur shares a swampy slime with the real slim Cady.)  Arthur flounders as a clown performer and moonlights as a stand-up comic.  Now that's comedy and drama.  The clown is happy, the comic downright angry.  The comic has stale material Rupert Pupkin would be at home with. 

Arthur trudges through a grim, claustrophobic apartment with his dubious mother (Frances Conroy) whom he bathes and dances with--it's Norman Bates isolation that doesn't quite penetrate the grainy veneer of the gloom and dank.  It doesn't feel real.  Nor does the relationship Arthur has with Sophie (Zazie Beetz), who lives in the same apartment building.  They exchange weird creepy signals to each other.  Arthur laughs to himself rather than talks to himself, and Mr. Phillips, whose "Hangover" series was lively if predictable early on, breathes no life at all into "Joker".  Much of it is slow-motion chaos and disaster parody.

Arthur is a rougher, nastier edition of Lonesome Rhodes.  Deeply misanthropic, Arthur is a flamethrower whose targets are at least considered.  "Joker" leavens Arthur's anti-social morosity with heart in one distressing, wickedly comic episode, the only one in Mr. Phillips's film that hits the mark, and in a potent way.  If comedy and death meld well, is comedy death itself?  Is laughter pain, or a way to alleviate pain?  The answer seems obvious but "Joker" seems to wreck what laughter is and what fun is supposed to be.  It is as if the film hates enjoyment but delights in punishment.  Yet "Joker", like the pathetic, unfunny jokes Arthur struggles to tell, doesn't execute its punchlines well. 

Only a little better with comic timing is the moralistic but upbeat Murray Franklin (Mr. De Niro), a second-rate late-night talk show host in the mold of Johnny Carson.  In look and manner here Mr. De Niro also resembles legendary New York talk hosts Joe Franklin and Regis Philbin.  You can't help thinking about "King Of Comedy" character Pupkin too when you see Mr. De Niro, whose Franklin gins up the TV ratings game with his hokey insults.  Musically "Joker" has time for Jimmy Durante's rendition of "Smile" and, for heaven's sake, Gary Glitter -- the latter is a calculated insult -- and given the background, a deep wound.  Mr. Phillips knows what he's doing, and it's the same thing he did in "The Hangover" films: go there, and do so unblinkingly, but all in the service of pushing buttons, yet in "Joker" it is done aimlessly and restlessly.

Throughout "Joker" the New York City air is lurid, foreboding, expectant and polluted with a vicious anger and contempt, augmented by great cinematography by Lawrence Sher.  Too bad the writing by Scott Silver and Mr. Phillips is far too incomplete and shallow to serve as a credible compliment to the visuals or Mr. Phoenix's intensity.  Some will say that "Joker" is irresponsible in its disturbing and jarring presentations but the statements being made are too performative and pretentious to hammer home anything beyond the outsized violence that unfolds--violence enlarged because of the poor screenplay.

The central question I had during "Joker" was, "who is Arthur, and what is he?"  "Joker" never brings us closer to him nor does the script argue his case well.  The circumstances around his history feel forced.  Arthur's soul has clearly long gone.  Who took it?  Comic-book or not, I wasn't convinced.  Then I didn't care.  The topic of mental illness is, unsurprisingly even more problematic and surface.  "Joker" is more about signposting toxic white male violence, ugliness and masculinity challenges than about mental illness, which gets lost in the fact that Mr. Phillips manipulates the issue and throws polarizing matters into a film that is not confident enough to discuss or appreciate the issues.  He hopes something will stick but his scattershot approach left me barren and exasperated. 

With its moment of Bernhard Goetz vengeance "Joker" makes the most of 1980s New York and Mark Friedberg's production design is a garish, nightmarish Gotham that comes alive powerfully, significantly in an anarchistic orgy of violence that evokes "far left" agitation or right-wing Proud Boys violence.  The cult of Donald Trump is surely at play in "Joker", with clown masks replacing MAGA hats as the uniform of choice.  "EAT THE RICH!" a placard shouts.  But which "rich"?  In the 1980s Trump was the darling of the New York media which itself was a nightmarish pack of wolves (just ask the Exonerated Five) -- and look at Trump now.  He campaigned at rallies as a violent agitator, sparking violence.  Joker has even less of a meaning or reason to be.  Trump won't pay your cinema fees for a refund for "Joker", but it is also true that this Joker could shoot someone on Eighth Avenue and not lose a wink of sleep. 

"Joker" succeeds to a degree in shocking and provoking but mostly reviles and alienates because of its deep cynicism about the world around an almost invisible character overwhelmed and angered by his own inadequacy.  The gun violence will make some uneasy, but uneasy compared to what, El Paso, Texas in August 2019?

With: Brett Cullen, Shea Whigham, Glenn Fleshler, Bill Camp, Josh Pais, Douglas Hodge.

"Joker" is rated R by the Motion Picture Association Of America for strong bloody violence, disturbing behavior, language and brief sexual images.  The film's running time is two hours and one minute.

COPYRIGHT 2019.  POPCORNREEL.COM.  ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.                Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW