By now, we know that no comic-book figure can be allowed to just be. The pop two-dimensionality of the panels is no longer enough. Everyone’s a character, now. They have origin stories, psychologies, narratives that aspire to be myth. And so it is with Joker. When did the clown named Carnival (real name Arthur Fleck) get himself that playing-card nickname, for instance? When did that terrifying rictus come about? When did his hair turn green? What did he want to be? (A stand-up comic.) Did he wear boxers or briefs? Well, not that question, exactly — though the film does leave us with the answer. But most importantly, we are left with this to chew over: Why, before this film, did no one think of modelling Batman’s most famous rival on Taxi Driver‘s Travis Bickle? The visual of hellish smoke rising from the streets is right out of Scorsese’s masterpiece, and what is that film’s rotting New York City if not a version of Gotham City here, which is literally infested with garbage?
This isn’t Jack Nicholson’s Joker, a ham in a purple suit, cackling with psychotic glee. This isn’t Heath Ledger’s Joker, with his tubercular rasp and a scarred smile that rivalled a scarred soul. This is Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker, and like his predecessors, the actor gives a hugely external (and very entertaining) performance. Sometimes, he swishes about like the most flamboyant gay man. Sometimes, he affects the graceful rhythms of a soft-shoe dancer. Sometimes, you feel you are getting variations on Marlon Brando’s miniature moments — say, stroking Eva Marie Saint’s glove and slipping it on his hand, in On The Waterfront. But there’s something internal, too. If Jack Nicholson went after campy flamboyance and Heath Ledger reached for mythical resonance, Phoenix’s interpretation of the character is attuned to psychological realism. How do you turn character into behaviour? It’s the question Phoenix keeps answering in every scene, even the most redundant ones. Did we really need a line as obvious as, “Is it just me or is it getting crazier out there?” But on screen, you feel a man trying to rationalise his own “craziness” by pointing to a world that may have turned even more crazy.
As that line suggests, the character is treated with an extraordinary amount of sympathy. Even physically, the man evokes sympathy. Phoenix has undergone one of those actorly weight losses — his skin hangs loose and his frame is all bones. The first glimpse we get of the character is in front of the mirror. It ends with him shedding a tear. He pities himself almost as much as we are meant to pity him. Even the title appears when Arthur is at his lowest, sprawled out in an alley after being beaten up by a bunch of kids. The camera moves away slowly. The screen says: JOKER. The sentimental cliché about clowns is the image of laughing through tears. Joker takes this cliché to a whole new level. Arthur suffers from a condition that makes him burst into laughter, which may have no relation to his mood. (Phoenix, reportedly, took inspiration from videos of people suffering from pathological laughter.) This trait is sweetly contrasted with Bruce Wayne’s (Dante Pereira-Olson) utter unwillingness to smile. The two meet when the future Batman is still a boy, when Arthur goes in search of Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen). It’s a great aside of a scene, with the two on either side of a huge iron gate with huge bars, their respective worlds (rich and poor, insider and outsider) clearly demarcated.
But what makes us sorriest for Arthur is his mother, Penny, played by Frances Conroy. If you remember the actress from Six Feet Under, you know her signature quality: tremulous agitation. She puts it to superb use here. The character is one of those manipulative monster mothers from the Tennessee Williams canon — though with Penny, there may be extenuating circumstances. (In a way, she is as damaged as Arthur.) Still, it’s hard not to wince when Arthur, while giving his mother a bath, tells her about his dreams of doing stand-up, and she asks, “Don’t you have to be funny to be a comedian?” But bigger humiliations lie in wait, from Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), a talk show host who mocks Arthur on live TV. By this time, you could have knocked me down with a feather. Who’d have expected these flourishes in a film by Todd Phillips, the auteur behind Road Trip and The Hangover installments?
If Arthur brings to mind Taxi Driver (he is even “rejected” by the woman he loves, an underdeveloped single-mother character played by Zazie Beetz), Murray Franklin is essentially De Niro playing the Jerry Lewis role in The King of Comedy. (In that film, also by Scorsese, De Niro played a psychopath with a very tenuous grip on reality, and he stalked Jerry Lewis’s talk-show host.) Joker is film-geek heaven, right from the Warner Bros. logo at the opening. (It’s the minimalistic Saul Bass design that the studio used in the 1970s/80s.) And I kid you not, there is actually a point where you think you are watching plot points from Trishul. But as fascinating as these choices are, they remain parts in search of a more cohesive, more meaningful whole. This is probably the biggest problem with trying to flesh out comic-book characters. However much you try to veer away from the “comic-book” aspect, you’re still left with a drama that just doesn’t have the real heft that, say, a Taxi Driver has.
There are other half-interesting angles. After murdering three upper-class men, the Joker is positioned as an anti-rich vigilante. (What a laugh! Arthur’s girlfriend says, “Three less pricks in Gotham City. Only a million more to go.”) And there are constant nods to clowns. That’s what Thomas Wayne calls the residents of Gotham. Later, we see him laughing at the antics of one of the world’s most famous clowns: Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times. Things get even more high-minded when Stephen Sondheim’s Send In the Clowns is used by harassers on a train the way Singin’ in the Rain was used in A Clockwork Orange. But again, all the flourishes in the world can’t prevent you from wishing for a film that didn’t feel so long, and wasn’t filled with so much sameness. But the final stretch is a knockout. After a lot of throat-clearing, Joker finally becomes the movie it wants to be, positioning its protagonist squarely as the antagonist in the Batman mythos we know so well. My grouses were gone, replaced by gooseflesh. Or maybe we should say, like a Phoenix rising from the ashes…