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Schultz reviews: “Joker”

Schultz reviews: “Joker”

Carl Schultz

“Joker” Distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures, 122 Minutes, Rated R, Released Oct. 4:

It’s appropriate that “Joker” is set in 1981, the era in history which introduced into popular culture such entertainment touchstones as the flamboyantly theatrical rock idol Alice Cooper, the eccentric and unpredictable comic Andy Kaufman, and the Martin Scorsese pictures “Taxi Driver” and “The King of Comedy.” The picture is evocative of all of them, and seems to either anticipate their impact on contemporary American art or draw from it.

“Joker” is the new movie in what is known as the DCEU, the extended universe of motion pictures based on characters appearing in DC Comics, and the title character is, of course, the Joker, the most iconic of the enemies of DC Comics superhero Batman. Although Batman appears only as a minor, peripheral character in “Joker,” the picture continues in spirit the darker-is-better trend established by filmmaker Tim Burton in 1989’s “Batman” and 1991’s “Batman Returns” and Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy of films between 2005 and 2012.

Portrayed in previous motion picture incarnations by actors as diverse as Academy Award winners Jack Nicholson, Heath Ledger and Jared Leto, Joker — or rather Arthur Fleck, the character who eventually becomes the Joker — is played in the new picture by Joaquin Phoenix, a performer noted for his iconoclastic approach to both motion picture acting and performance art.

Filmed in a semi-documentary style eerily reminiscent of the John McNaughton’s controversial 1986 psychological horror film “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer,” “Joker” tells the origin story of the title character: Arthur Fleck is an emotionally-challenged social nobody living an anonymous existence in 1981 Gotham City, the fictional American metropolis usually depicted in both comics and movies as a hybrid of New York City and Chicago.

An aspiring stand-up comic who ekes out a living as a contract clown for children’s parties, Arthur lives in a squalid high rise apartment with his ailing mother, Penny, who once-upon-a-time worked as a domestic servant at stately Wayne Manor, the residence of gazillionaire philanthropist and aspiring mayoral candidate Thomas Wayne. Now disabled, psychologically damaged, and probably delusional, Penny lives on meager retirement benefits and relies on Arthur as her solitary source of personal support.

For Arthur Fleck, life is a matter of endurance rather than existence or experience: Suffering from a neurological disorder which causes him to laugh hysterically at inappropriate times, regularly visiting an uncaring social services caseworker who supplies him with his prescribed psychological medications, Arthur shuffles daily between rejection, ridicule and abuse . . . until a spontaneous act of self-defense during a subway ride elevates him to notoriety:

While traveling home from the agency that employs him as a party clown, still wearing his makeup and costume and carrying a concealed firearm given to him by a coworker for self-defense, Arthur is verbally abused and then viciously beaten by a trio of drunken executives from Wayne Enterprises. Brandishing his coworker’s weapon, Arthur kills the men. As news of the attacks circulates, the disguised and unidentified subway vigilante eventually begins to inspire a rising protest movement by Gotham City’s impoverished citizens against the rich, affluent and entitled.

Simultaneously, as spiraling budget cuts end the social service program that supplies Arthur with his psychological medications while he receives negative reinforcement and praise for his anonymous act of subway violence, videotape of his failed stand-up comedy act finds its way to his idol, the late night talk show host Murray Franklin. Franklin broadcasts the footage of Arthur’s performance on his network television show to surprising acclaim. And when he’s invited to appear live on Franklin’s show, Arthur decides to use the opportunity to unveil a flamboyant new personality . . . by performing a stunning act of violence.

Directed by Todd Phillips, the American filmmaker best known for the “The Hangover” trilogy of comedies between 2009 and 2013, “Joker” was written by the director in collaboration with Scott Silver, a screenwriter noted for such gritty urban dramas as “8 Mile” in 2002 and “The Fighter” in 2010. Combining stylistic elements from all of them but reminiscent of none of them, “Joker” becomes the rare comic book-based movie which completely defies comic book convention.

Relentlessly bleak, dreary and grim, containing no elaborately dazzling special effects, more than thrills or adventure “Joker” aspires to social commentary: Director Phillips uses his camera to paint a portrait of a world in despair. Set during a strike by city workers, Gotham City is a city buried in garbage, grunge and graffiti, plagued by urban decay, social depravity and moral corruption, with no discernible leadership except mayoral candidate Wayne, who during a television interview absently refers to the city’s disenfranchised as “clowns.”

Little by little, the world which surrounds Arthur grows more squalid and chaotic until it resembles an especially dark and dangerous comic book version of urban hell — it’s not Arthur who transitions into a different, more hostile persona so much as the environment which surrounds him. And it’s a measure of Todd Phillips’ success as the director of “Joker” that by the time the title character makes his first appearance at the end of the picture, he seems perfectly, naturally at home in his hellish surroundings.

In its way, “Joker” becomes a gleefully subversive, joyously perverse masterwork of revenge porn: Arthur Fleck spends the first 100 minutes of the picture’s running time enduring the indignities, abuses and insults of society and the final 22 minutes avenging them. But with its obvious, and eminently persuasive, equation of comic book violence and mayhem with the moral chaos and casual cruelties of society, Phillips and company with “Joker” also draw a strong parallel between lurid comic book fantasy and contemporary American culture.

More than any other contributor to the picture, “Joker” is a showpiece for actor Joaquin Phoenix in the title role. An unconventional performer long noted for his slavish, almost obsessive commitment and preparation for the roles he plays, Phoenix inhabits the role of Arthur Fleck with a dedication that makes it difficult to imagine any other actor playing the part — indeed, performer Jared Leto, cast the role of Joker in 2016’s “Suicide Squad” and its tentative sequels, is said to be upset with Phoenix’s appearance in “Joker.”

Intense and emaciated, his dark eyes reflecting the chaos surrounding him, Phoenix’s performance is a triumph of subtlety: Incrementally, with minute modifications of his facial expressions aided by movements of camera angle and lighting, Phoenix’s innocent countenance becomes menacing, his warm smile becomes cold and arrogant, and his affectionate gaze becomes hateful and cruel. Joker’s climactic appearance on Franklin’s talk show in the picture is strongly — and likely deliberately — reminiscent of Phoenix’s own infamous 2009 interview on David Letterman’s television show, during which the bearded, disheveled and seemingly addled actor nonplussed the usually unflappable host.

In a contemporary society where the nation’s flags are seemingly lowered in sadness and mourning over some new act of senseless violence more often than they’re flown at full-staff, and even the top lawmakers can boast about acts of sexual violence or mock the uncontrollable mannerisms of a reporter afflicted with neurological maladies, “Joker” becomes a richly appropriate metaphor for our times.

And as the Joker is elevated above the riots and chaos in the streets by a mob of lookalike clowns inspired by his antics of spontaneous cruelty and violence, the audience gets the feeling that the punishment fits the crime, and that the culture of routine mayhem and callous indifference to suffering has traveled full-circle. As the cartoonist Walt Kelly once observed with considerable prescience, “We have met the enemy . . . and he is us.”

“Joker” is attracting an enormous amount of controversy, including reportedly from some employees of distributor Warner Bros. Pictures, for supposedly promoting serial violence. CNN’s website reports that “controversy over the villainous character’s similarities to real-life mass shooters might dissuade some people from seeing (the picture, while) others may use it as a reason to check out the thriller just to see what all the fuss is about.”

In fact, the accusations are probably unfounded, or at least exaggerated — the picture explains the possible roots of violence rather than condones or exploits the phenomenon. In anticipation of the release of “Joker,” families of the people killed during the 2012 mass shooting in Aurora, Colorado, during the local premiere of “The Dark Knight Rises” — another DC Comics adaptation of the Batman story — called on Warner Bros. to “use (their) massive platform and influence to . . . build safer communities with fewer guns.” The studio responded by issuing a statement that “Joker” is not “an endorsement of real-world violence of any kind.”

Still, “Joker” is not being shown at the Aurora, Colorado, movie theater where the 2012 mass shooting occurred. Additionally, the Landmark Theaters chain of motion picture auditoriums has prohibited patrons from wearing Joker costumes, masks or makeup during the movie’s engagement, and police departments in New York City and Los Angeles have increased police visibility at area theaters, although both cities report no specific threats.

“Joker” was predicted by estimates from BoxOffice magazine’s analysts to accumulate up to $105 million in gross earnings across the United States and Canada during its opening weekend. By the end of business on Oct. 5, “Joker” had taken in some $93.5 million in gross earnings across North America and $140.5 million internationally, for a worldwide total of $234 million, easily taking the first place spot on the Box Office Mojo Top Ten over last week’s animated adventure “Abominable” in a distant second place with $12 million, with “Downton Abbey” in third with $8 million during its third week of release.

“Joker” is rated R for strong, bloody violence, disturbing behavior, language concerns and brief nudity.

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