It was in my college days, the mid-2000s, when I first watched the GG Allin documentary Hated, directed by one Todd Phillips. It was quite the spectacle for a wide-eyed early twenty-something to watch, especially in the early discovery days of youtube, where videos of the obscure and the extraordinary were blossoming. For all of the antics shown, the grime and the poop throwing, the yelling and the cutting, there was also this… tenderness and sweet vibes that radiated from this man of punk, for whom true freedom was, in his mind, achieved. Phillips has, since then, done mostly boner comedies, but here and there will offer up some subversive - sometimes dude-bro-ish, sometimes truly dark - filmmaking within the business of Hollywood goofiness.
So, of course, he would do a standalone take on the origins of Batman’s arch-nemesis, Joker.
And, of course, it would be highly divisive.
And, of course, it would be a “problem”. So much so, that police are going undercover at screenings opening weekend.
This movie won the Venice Film Festival’s Golden Lion this year, so there must be something to it, huh?
Indeed, Joker is a rarity, and I don’t just mean for a major studio to bankroll. It’s a movie that pretty openly finds common ground with its central character, never once having to sell its own soul to do so, but genuinely invites him in any way. While not a documentary, there is a similar Hated approach here, where the filmmaker teeters between fly on the wall fascination and joining in on the chaos directly. In one scene, where Arthur Fleck - the mentally and emotionally unstable party clown/wannabe comedian (Joaquin Pheonix) - in full Joker makeup, with a pretty heavy plan laid out for him to execute, dances and stomps his way down a long and steep set of street stairs. It’s creepy, it’s crawly, and yet somehow freeing to watch as someone unhinged reaches a moment of zen.
Make no bones about it, Joaquin Phoenix isn’t really playing a comic book character here. This is as if Combat Shock had a comic book spinoff planted onto it. Or if someone found a way to take the video diaries of Ricardo Lopez (the Bjork stalker) and adapt a “villain” tale onto it. I wrapped quotes around “villain” because it’s quite “easy” to make a mentally ill or insufficiently cared for individual into a “monster”. Sometimes, the problem really is society. Sometimes, the problem really is in the lack of social services. Sometimes, a person is tossed through the cracks. Does this make for a fun superhero-ish story? And fun for who?
Phoenix is a revelation in this film and absolutely reminds me of people I’ve met in life (even recently) that have been abused, neglected, and left to fend for themselves. For Fleck, a murderous moment that could’ve happened to anyone ends by way of triumph when he gets the courage to kiss a girl. Before that, he runs away, takes a deep breath, and does a kind of waltz. There are many instances like this where our understanding of morality is upended by the very tone of Fleck’s actions and what it all means for and to him. Does this make Joker inappropriate or vile in some way?
I think Phillips - a most woke to woke culture guy - is trying to depict a tragi-comedy in such a bending manner that people across the political and philosophical spectrums don’t know how to react other than to express disgust. And, really, rightfully so. It’s totally understandable, especially when turning perspective and expectation on their heads on a global stage. Joker, at least through Phoenix, is a disturbing but somewhat courageous portrait of someone who loses everything but somehow wins most victoriously - at least, in his mind. Think Brazil, sort of.
The message(s) within the off-kilter tone can be distracting to the character piece, especially when you consider that the event that creates Batman in this film might turn him into a Punisher than a caped crusader. Maybe in these fits and starts, Phillips injects too much to play with. “Kill the rich!” reads a protest sign during a near riot. “They’re clowns!” a wealthy guy says on tv. Is it reductive to place people into only these two categories? Or is it that, amidst the noise and the fury of these battling ideas and ideals, those in the middle must make their own way through it all? Like a gallery of rogues or a league of sorts.
Joker, minus the controversy and the poor statements, by itself, is mostly a one-man show from Phoenix, with a touch more going on than expected. It’s uncomfortable, it’s righteous, and likely deserves most of its accolades. Will I be joining the Best Picture campaigning, in a year when Avengers: Endgame might be considered for top Oscars?
No, I don’t think I will.
What a weird timeline we’re in, right?
RATING: 3.5 / 5