Arthur's Descent Into Notoriety: Joker
In 1980s Gotham, Arthur Fleck is a man with few friends. He has mental issues, as well as a condition that leads to fits of uncontrollable laughter. Adopted by a single mother who is herself unstable, Arthur has not had a great support system. The movie Joker shows the descent of Arthur (Joaquin Phoenix) from an unpopular and often abused clown for hire to his beginnings as a criminal. Arthur has been seeing a social worker to address his behavioral issues, but that arrangement ends due to city budget cuts that mainly affect lower income people such as the Flecks. Greater trouble comes when fellow clown Randall (Glenn Fleshler) gives Arthur a gun. Arthur takes the gun to a job, and it falls out of his costume. After his employer fires Arthur, he gets harassed on the subway by three bankers. When he's had enough from them, Arthur pulls his gun and shoots them dead.
Once at home, he joins his bedridden mother Penny (Frances Conroy) in watching their favorite late night show, hosted by Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro). Arthur especially likes the stand-up comedians, and takes notes so he can fashion a routine for himself. He tries out his material at a club's open mike night, and bombs. He later learns that someone taped his set, and sent it to Franklin's people. The show contacts him, and offers him a chance to appear on the show. Arthur accepts the offer, not knowing that Franklin plans to laugh at him. Meanwhile, Gotham police are on Arthur's trail as they connect him to the subway killings as well as other acts Arthur commits after that.
Joker captures its era well, but I still prefer the more compelling dark versions of Gotham from Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy and the one presented in the former FOX TV series Gotham. Director and co-writer Todd Phillips seems derivative with his vision of the comic book burg of note. Like Lorene Scafaria in Hustlers, Phillips has drawn inspiration from the work of Martin Scorsese. Those familiar with the 1983 film The King Of Comedy, which was set in the same time as Joker. Both films involve one man's obsession with a talk show host. Also, both Arthur and Rupert Pupkin (played in The King Of Comedy by De Niro) are mentally unhinged, and bad at stand-up comedy. The lack of originality detracts from this film, but its fatal flaw lies in changing the nature of the ill-fated Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen). Before this, the Wayne patriarch had been consistently depicted as both wealthy and benevolent. Here, though, he shows little sympathy for Arthur or any other resident of Gotham who feels ignored. This move leaves Joker with no real protagonist, save for the minor roles of detectives Burke (Shea Whigham) and Garrity (Bill Camp) as they work to take Arthur into custody.
The best part of Joker is the performance of Phoenix as a troubled man who starts to make the transition into an enemy of Gotham. Already a man with demons, Arthur stops caring about those who stop caring about him. Even for those who care about him, Arthur shows he doesn't always understand boundaries, especially with Sophie Dumond (Zazie Beetz), who lives in the same apartment building as the Flecks and shares a frustration with Arthur regarding the conditions in the city. Arthur has yet to become the criminal mastermind that has been memorably portrayed on the big screen by both Heath Ledger and Jack Nicholson, but he does find the impetus and focus in his troubled mind to arrive at the point of no return. De Niro was also good as Murray, the host who has no idea what kind of man he helps to unleash.
In their attempts to create villain origin stories, both DC and Marvel (with Venom) have fallen short in doing nothing but creating substandard work. Joker fares better than Venom for just one reason. Neither film comes close to creating an origin story as good as X-Men: First Class, which shows the reasons behind the rift between one-time friends Professor Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr, who becomes X-Men nemesis Magneto. Things could have been so much worse for Joker, though. It didn't wind up being as detestable as Catwoman.
On a scale of zero to four stars, I give Joker two stars. Enter and exit not laughing.
© 2019 Pat Mills