I often enjoy the nuances of overreacted theatrics such as maniacal laughing and interpretive dancing, consequently, I feel morally ashamed when it’s expressed after callously killing someone. Stripping away this story down to its bare essentials, JOKER such as it is, is a character study, nothing more, nothing less. It’s heartless nature at times alleviates itself from tension created by the sheer uncomfortable situations brought on by the unkindness of humanity. If you’ve survived A CLOCKWORK ORANGE then you’ll probably survive JOKER because they share the same DNA, in terms of happy go lucky songs intertwined with expressive dance all riding on the dark force of evil. So this quote from A CLOCKWORK ORANGE fits perfectly for the film JOKER.
“When a man cannot choose, he ceases to be a man.” – Anthony Burgess
A case in point. Nonetheless, if I had to surmise the central themes in JOKER, the first could be found in the quote above. Joaquin Phoenix, who plays Arthur Fleck (AKA Joker) was dealt a shit hand from the get go. As the story unfolds, we learn, he did not choose to be abused as a young child. He did not choose to have a mother who was delusional. He did not choose to be beaten up. Nor did he not choose to have brain damage. So once he’s backed into a dark corner, of course he’s forced to defend himself. When you lose your sense of worth, your job, your therapy, medication, and become beaten down by society when you’re looking for answers of course you’re going to snap. And what director Todd Philips does is so manipulative and stealthy. He’s created a natural-like hot box of oppression, which in turn probes us to feel empathetic and side with the self pity of a madman. Is that the joke behind all this? Like pulling the rug out from under the audience as if we’re in some Charlie Chaplin film? We’re watching Joker's humanity being aggressively turned inside out with no reinforcing hope of redemption. That’s bleak. No wonder I felt so grimy when the credits began to roll. It leaves an unpalatable taste in my mouth. Fix it! And how dare you for using Charlie Chaplin’s MODERN TIMES as some socio-economic commentary that dances around the edges of some showy correlation. NO!
Let me take a breath.
OKAY. The only brilliance in JOKER is Joaquin Phoenix’s idiosyncratic performance, (mostly his dance moves) some timeless quality songs, overindulgence in set design, with some crisp cinematography. Other than that, the story sank like the Titanic. Why? Because you forgot to throw in a little speck of optimism. Instead, we’re left with an unchallenging, predictable, too on the nose, clichéd, and yet profoundly praised $50 million film. Why? Some viewers just don’t want to be so inundated with darkness, we live in 2019 for crying out loud. Isn’t that enough? There’s plenty of real crazy people out there that the media reports on and ironically jokes about from time to time. So now, JOKER becomes this strained fixture reflecting the mythical lunacy of chaotic fantasy that almost closely parallels our present day. Society is a mess, no doubt there which has more often than not been reflected in our entertainment. Yeah, I’m looking at you, city of Los Angeles, and your downtown rat infestation, where typhus is roaming the streets because you’re too ridiculous to remove the piles upon piles of garbage. It’s still a problem with a simple solution. It’s called giving a damn! Of course this is just one example that was cleverly heard in an audio bit in the opening of the film. That piece of news is something we're still dealing with today, folks!
Let me take another breath.
Aside from the ceasing to exist motif, I believe media and society play an elemental role throughout the film. Take for instance, the introduction to Robert De Niro’s character, Murray, who’s a late night TV talk show host. His sole demeanor represents how the media can shape society by poking fun at people. People who are not privy to a certain set of societal norms shall we say which is something we practically bathe in today. As an aside this is really where journalism took the wrong road in sensationalizing the news essentially damaging society. Now, as a segway, I have to warn you of SPOILERS here because the subject matter I talk about coincides with sensationalism and what happens to Murray. YOU’VE BEEN WARNED. (Just skip the next paragraph if you haven't seen the film, yet.)
What was Joker’s sole motivation for shooting Murray pointblank on live television? As we’ve seen in previous scenes, Joker glorifies, Murray as an influence to aspire too and as we’re watching the sequence where Joker is being interviewed on his show, we’re really witnessing his birth into complete mayhem. Arthur admits to murder, which obviously stuns everyone, he cracks a dark, inappropriate joke, that offends everyone. We’ve seen this pattern before repeatedly all leading up to the final crescendo and the point of no return for Arthur. It’s the kind of insanity that’s been sensationalized before. Remember Christine Chubbuck? If you were around in 1974, of course you do. I would argue that was the birth place of American news taking that dark turn into mayhem, blurring the line between emotions and factual commonplace. Consequently, in some morbid ways Chubbuck’s suicide became a light inspiration for Sidney Lumet’s 1976 film NETWORK. It’s interesting to see this narrative cascading itself through spans of decades in Hollywood pictures. Details are rearranged here and there, but the sentiment still remains in tact. The struggle and subject finds a way to preserve its relevance now more than ever. Our media is filled with so much violence, its suffocating.
The final theme that ties everything together is narcissism, which is all funneled by Joker's expression of body movement. If you've seen any of Joaquin's body of work, you'll know he contorts himself into all of the characters he plays and those are the best kind of actors to work with. There's always that hunger and drive to work it out and get it right. Sure any actor can memorize lines and act, but to truly get into the psychology of said character you always have to dig deeper which is why research is so critical. Plus using your body to convey emotion is one of the most powerful things to observe on film because in it you can't always be sure what it means and the entire industry was birth on this notion. Remember the silent films? There's a layer of mystery that words cannot always express what emotion gives us. Take for instance Joker's over-effusive laughter. It's not infectious because as you listen to it linger on it slowly morphs into someone's pain. You hear pain in his laughter and that's never easy to stomach. It's a kind of grief that transcends into something most don't often always recognize; narcissism. The laugh and body movement are ostentatious, fueling this lack of empathy which narcissists are notoriously known for. You can pity a narcissist forever until it bites you in the ass, because they're so devious in showing you who you want to believe they are when in reality they cower behind a facade. In this instance, clown makeup.
In the case of JOKER, it stoops to the level of misrepresentation on so many levels. A person’s mentally disturbed psyche utilizes sadistic humor and violence to convey his misgivings which is construed as a political statement by the masses creating havoc, dismay, injustice, fear, anger, corruption, and misinformation. A plague that very much haunts us today which seems to be justified by? You guessed it, narcissism. But I get it this is just a movie, I shouldn’t lasso such deepness, on the contrary awareness spawns’ contemplation and I believe that’s worthy of something.
So if you like watching civilians parade in clown masks advocating violence and destruction as an excuse for civil unrest, by all means you’ll probably enjoy this film. Given its such a weird dichotomy living in a world where we know violence occurs on a day to day basis and absorbing a film mirroring it so meticulously, it becomes unsettling because we’re forced to reflect on what it means to us and what we see, hear, and feel. In some instances, it almost feels like watching an in depth two-hour PSA about mental destruction, juxtaposing society’s intense decay denoting all the vices built upon inequality. And if that fills your emotions with anger, then that makes two of us. And if you have a weak spot for Joaquin busting those sick dance moves on the staircase to Glitter Band's "Rock n Roll Part 2" that's fine too. You'll love this film with deep conflicting thoughts. Guilty.