Joker (2019), reviews

I made it to Todd Phillips's Joker at the Angelika Mosaic in Merrifield, VA Sunday night (while the Washington Nationals were losing their playoff game without me there) and after a surprise concert Sunday afternoon (reviewed yesterday). Too many events keeps me from getting work done. There was a moderate crowd on a Sunday night, but it was not a sellout (large auditorium).

OK, the film won first prize at the Venice Film Festival. It was produced by (Australia's) Village Roadshow Pictures, which has always been a major business partner for Warner Brothers. WB uses the trade dress it used to have for Warner Independent Pictures, a brand it no longer uses officially, to mark the film.

I am going to stay away from the spoilers, as everyone seems to be expected to do right now.

But of course, this is a troubling film, and the violence accelerates toward the end, in the last twenty minutes, with some shocking and brutal surprises.

The deep string music score by Icelandic composer Hildur Guonadottir is indeed effective, so much so that you can imagine this film as stage opera and the parts sung.

Phillips has taken the DC Comics Batman franchise and Gotham City trademark, which is essentially New York City in 1981, at its low point (I had moved to Dallas in January 1979), and written a character and politics driven film, without the superhero stuff. Indeed, all of the people in the film seem pretty despicable. You want to go back and look at the gifted young adults in the world who are actually accomplishing things. Much of the film was actually shot in Newark, NJ, according to credits.

Arthur Fleck is a down-and-out middle aged man who tries to scape a living as a stand-up comic, sometimes as a clown. (I am reminded of baseball player Bryce Harper's use of the phrase 'clown question'.) He lives in a dingy apartment in the Bronx (the building courtyard and staircase look familiar from my living in NYC 1974-1978) taking care of his mother Penny (Frances Conroy). There is some controversy over his original 'adoption' and possible birth connection to magnate Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen). Arthur is played by Joaquin Phoenix, who had at one time announced he would quit acting. It is obvious that Phoenix deliberately lost weight for this movie to look gaunt, but he remains brutally strong. Arthur has real problems fitting in to a competitive society and passes out cards on the subway that he suffers from an uncontrollable laughing disorder (a variety of Tourette's syndrome or clonic seizure).

The first half of the film presents Arthur with a couple setbacks. One is a brutal beating where his sign is stolen by thugs. Later, he is working as a comic for hire entertaining kids in a hospital when a pistol he carries for self-protection (2nd amendment?) falls on the floor. He gets fired.

There is also a hopeful sign, as he makes an accidental appearance on Murray Franklin's comedy show (Robert De Niro, who has his hands in Tribeca).

The shitshow accelerates in the middle of the film, as Arthur's violence, at first maybe genuine self-defense, starts. We see all the radicals in the street. Tim Pool had suggested that the radicals are Antifa. Cameron Kasky tweeted that he knew is was a moral lesson about inequality and despair but wanted to see it as escapism. The Antifa connection and the combativeness that results from trying to deal with systematic inequality (and overblown 'meritocracy') becomes apparent in the last twenty minutes, but it's not so clear in the beginning. Wayne is quoted as saying that the thugs hate people who have made something of their lives, a reference to the 'meritocracy trap'. There is a violent Marxist-Leninist movement called 'kill the rich' with plenty of signs.

The mainstream media is warning parents about this film, perhaps with justification (CNET story). There are some calls to ban the film, which is rated hard R and frankly comes close to NC-17.

(Posted: Monday, October 7, 2019 at 10:30 AM EDT)