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'Joker': A Piercing Psychological Portrait Of Batman's Notorious Nemesis

Oct 3, 2019
Originally published on October 4, 2019 11:42 am
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. The new film "Joker" is a rage-filled origin story starring Joaquin Phoenix as Batman's most famous nemesis. It opens tomorrow, but there are some screenings beginning today. Security has been heightened at many theaters across the country because of fear related to the Aurora movie theater shooting in 2012, which was at a showing of the Batman film "The Dark Knight." Our film critic Justin Chang has this review of "Joker."

JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: "Joker" is only just now opening in theaters, but it already seems to have exhausted its potential for hype and controversy. You may have heard that it won the prestigious top prize at the Venice Film Festival and that its star Joaquin Phoenix is a likely Academy Award nominee for his astounding physical transformation. You may also have heard that the movie is much more realistic and disturbing than the average comic book adaptation and that some are anxious that its protagonist, a lonely white male misfit who starts killing people, may incite real-life acts of violence.

You can't blame people for feeling anxious in a country where mass shootings happen every week, but while "Joker" is far from a major artistic triumph, it's not an irresponsible glorification, either. It gazes with both terror and pity on Arthur Fleck, who's played by Phoenix as the saddest sack in all of Gotham City. It's 1981, and he's working as a clown for hire. He aspires to become a standup comedian, even though nothing about him or his life is remotely funny. He lives with his mother in a cramped apartment, and we learn that he once spent some time in a mental hospital.

He suffers from a rare condition that causes him to burst out in noisy, uncontrollable spasms of laughter. He meets regularly with a social worker, who has him on several different anti-depressants, until one day, she tells him that the city is cutting funding for their visits.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JOKER")

SHARON WASHINGTON: (As Social Worker) Arthur, I have some bad news for you. This is the last time we'll be meeting.

JOAQUIN PHOENIX: (As Arthur Fleck) You don't listen, do you? You just ask the same questions every week. How's your job? Are you having any negative thoughts? All I have are negative thoughts.

CHANG: Between Arthur's clown getup and his maniacal laugh, you can see the building blocks of the Joker's freaky, funny persona sliding into place. The director Todd Phillips, who wrote the script with Scott Silver, keeps pushing Arthur toward the point of no return. First, he's attacked by some kids in an alley, prompting him to acquire a handgun. And then he loses his job. By the time he's getting smacked around by three smug Wall Street bros on the subway, something inside him snaps, and he takes out his gun. When we see him next, he's dancing in dreamy slow motion, relishing his newfound calling as a homicidal maniac.

Phoenix makes Arthur an exceptionally vivid monster. His performance is a symphony of scowls, howls, grins, grimaces and, of course, those endless fits of laughter. It's a big, grotesquely showy piece of acting, but you can't take your eyes off him. Phoenix's work here suffers only in comparison to his own earlier performances in "The Master" and "You Were Never Really Here." The men he played in those movies were genuinely haunted figures, and you had no idea from moment to moment what they would do next. In "Joker," by contrast, you know what's ahead for Arthur Fleck. His journey is doomed - you might even say programmed - to end in madness and violence.

Phillips is best known for making "The Hangover" movies, "Old School" and other comedies of male misbehavior, and "Joker" feels, in some ways, like a comic book extension of his brand. There is a beauty and lucidity to his work here that may surprise you, and his vision of Gotham City has its own squalid grandeur. But as convincingly gritty as it looks, "Joker" falters in its attempt to conjure a backdrop of social unrest. We hear news of a rise in violent crime and anti-rich sentiment aimed at billionaire tycoons like Thomas Wayne, whose son Bruce Wayne will, of course, grow up to become Batman himself. But these stabs at political relevance feel mostly coy and disengaged.

You can sense "Joker" trying to position itself as a triumph of comic book realism along the lines of Christopher Nolan's "Dark Knight" trilogy, but there are other movies overshadowing this one, too. One crucial subplot concerns Arthur's comedy idol, a late night TV talk show host played by Robert DeNiro in an explicit nod to Martin Scorsese's "The King of Comedy." "Joker" also plays like an homage to another Scorsese-DeNiro classic - "Taxi Driver," also a psychological thriller about a man who might just be as hopeless and unreachable as the city that spawned him.

I've seen "Joker" twice now, and my feelings about it remain unresolved. Although Phillips' thin-skin defenses of his movie haven't helped matters, I can't deny my admiration of what he's accomplished - a comic book picture that avoids computer-generated spectacle and renders an iconic villain on an intimate human scale. But if "Joker" can be hard to watch at times, in the end, there's something a little too easy about its vision of a world tilting into madness. After two hours charting a man's psychological destruction and a city's descent into criminal anarchy, "Joker" finally ends with a sly wink and a maddening shrug, as if to say, stay tuned for the sequel.

GROSS: Justin Chang is a film critic for The L.A. Times. If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like our interviews this week with Conan O'Brien, actor Antonio Banderas or Jack Goldsmith, whose new memoir is about his investigation into his stepfather's involvement in the disappearance of powerful union boss Jimmy Hoffa, check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews.

(SOUNDBITE OF BILL CHARLAP TRIO'S "COOL")

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Ann Marie Baldonado, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Joel Wolfram. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF BILL CHARLAP TRIO'S "COOL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.