On the one hand, Joker
, the new film from director Todd Phillips (The Hangover
, Old School
, War Dogs
) that provides an origin story for the DC Comics villain, tries to function as a critique of the current state of affairs. Set in the fictional Gotham, a metropolis that resembles New York, the movie takes place during turbulent and uncertain times. The city is overrun by “super” rats, and a garbage worker strike has left the place in shambles.
On the other hand, it almost celebrates acts of violence as we see the Joker laugh and dance as he randomly kills people in acts of rage.
Now showing at area theaters, the movie delivers a muddled message that’s spurned so much controversy that there’s likely to be a police presence at many screenings.
While the film comes off as a compelling character study, it falters when it tries to inject social commentary into the equation.
Arthur (Joaquin Phoenix), a guy who works as a clown, can barely get by. He regularly visits a social worker and takes seven different medications to try to quiet the demons in his head. He laughs uncontrollably and hands cards to people that explain this is a mental illness, and they shouldn’t judge him for it. But people do judge him. A mother on a city bus shields her young boy from him after he tries to make the child laugh.
One day, a group of teens surrounds him and beats him in an alley. When a fellow clown hears of the tragedy, he gives Arthur a gun. The next time a group of preppy assholes tease him on the subway, Arthur shoots them dead.
Here’s where the film’s message gets muddled. The deaths somehow trigger an uprising as the general public treats the Joker as a hero and sees the shooting as a way of getting back at the One Percent.
The shooting sends Arthur down a dark path. He begins to revel in violence and intimidation. He stalks a neighbor. He confronts wealthy businessman and mayoral candidate Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) and claims to be the man’s son. After committing one particularly gruesome act, he dances as he walks down a set of stairs.
When a video of Arthur making a misguided attempt at standup comedy goes viral, talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro) invites Arthur to be a guest. Arthur arrives wearing face paint and a clown suit and confesses he is the Joker as he unravels before a live audience, and cops rush to the studio to apprehend him.
Phoenix, who lost about 50 pounds for the part, excels in the role. He completely inhabits the character and captures the mania that ensues after Arthur embraces his violent side.
Given Arthur’s condition, we tend to feel sorry for the guy and sympathize with him. We shouldn’t. At a time when mass shootings by angry white men have riveted the country, this movie potentially delivers the wrong message at the wrong time.
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