In the film “Joker,” Arthur Fleck, portrayed by Golden Globe winner Joaquin Phoenix (You Were Never Really Here) is an unemployed, and mentally unbalanced man. He makes a living, and barely, at that, by performing as a clown at different events. He is both awkward and captivating to watch, which is thanks to Phoenix infusing his performance with a gamut of emotions, that are full of nuance. Fleck resides with, and is devoted to his ailing mother, played by Golden Globe winner Frances Conroy (Six Feet Under), in a rundown building in the fictional Gotham City. The film takes place in 1981. In addition to trash being left uncollected on the streets, because of a sanitation workers strike, there is an out-of-control crime epidemic. Additionally, there is a wide gap between the wealthy, such as business man, Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), who is seeking to become Mayor, and the majority of the city’s residents. As it turns out, Arthur’s mother, was once employed by Wayne. She keeps writing him letters, in order to elicit his financial help, but he has yet to respond to her, and from what is divulged, it seems her letters have been going unanswered for a significant portion of time.
Arthur is on a series of medications, for a medical condition, which causes him to laugh at inappropriate things. In order to explain the condition, he carries with him a business card, which he can hand to a person, to let them know that there is something wrong with him, and he doesn’t mean anything wrong by his behavior. He has been meeting on a weekly basis, with a city appointed psychiatrist, but not long into the film, the funding for his treatment has been terminated, and he is on his own. Arthur is shown as someone who can easily be bullied, and doesn’t have the wherewithal, at least initially, to stand up for himself. There is a scene at the start of the film, where Arthur is performing as a clown, in front of a store; he is trying to promote the store’s sale. The sign he is holding, is taken from him by a group of young hoodlums, who to his credit, Arthur chases. The downside, is that when he catches up with the thugs, he gets beaten up, and left in a back alleyway.
One of the few pleasures Arthur seems to have in his life, is watching the Murray Franklin show, a late night talk show. In the role of Franklin is two time Oscar winner Robert De Niro (The Godfather: Part II). Arthur dreams of having interactions with Franklin, while at the same time attempting to pursue a career in standup comedy. The only other glimmer of light, in Arthur’s life, is his relationship with Sophie, a character acted by Emmy nominee Zazie Beetz (Atlanta). She is a single mother he is dating, who lives in his building. Their relationship, like that of his dreams about appearing on Franklin’s show, leave a viewer wondering, how much is real and how much is Arthur’s imagination.
The violence in the film, doesn’t occur often, but when it does, it is quick and graphic. There also isn’t a tremendous amount of action in “The Joker.” The film is, after all, not a superhero movie; while the movie does contain a few scenes that feature a young Bruce Wayne (Dante Pereira-Olson), his persona, as Batman, Gotham’s caped crusader, is years away. Instead, the film is a character study of a complex man; an origin story, as to how, the most well known villain in all of Gotham City came to infamous prominence. The final straw, that puts Arthur on the path of no return, is when he is bullied by three stock brokers, on the subway. The actions they take against Arthur, and he against them, sets up the second part of the film.
Oscar nominee Todd Phillips (Borat), directed the disquieting and intense film, and co-wrote the screenplay with BAFTA nominee Scott Silver (The Fighter). The screenplay was written using characters created by Bob Kane, Bill Finger, and Jerry Robinson. The film premiered on August 31, 2019 at the Venice Film Festival. Parts crime, drama, and thriller, the film’s runtime is 122 minutes.
One of the most interesting aspects of “Joker,” is that as a viewer, it’s hard to know whether to despise him, or feel sorry for Arthur based on everything that is imparted to the viewer regarding his background. The filmmakers, I felt, wanted the audience to come to their own conclusion. In closing, in my opinion, “Joker” is a well-executed film that succeeds on all levels, but the main reason to watch the movie is for the brilliant performance given by Phoenix as the title character.