Marc Nash put on a happy face and watched Joker...
I really, really enjoyed “Joker”, though I’m not sure what its target audience is. Set in Gotham City, it’s refreshing to focus on a superhero’s foe, rather than the superhero themself. I say foe, because Arthur Fleck, aka Joker, has no superpowers whatsoever. He gets beaten up twice and is knocked down by a single punch thrown by a city bureaucrat no less. Instead, what we get is a portrayal of a descent into madness. I say descent, but the film opens with Fleck having been recently released from a lunatic asylum having a session with a therapist, in which he asks for his 8 different anti-psychotic medications to be increased in dosage.
Unlike all the other superhero films, we really do get a sense of Gotham as a city soaked in sin, vice and on its knees. Class prejudice and poverty are the external pressures here and Arthur is the carer for his mother, who spends all day awaiting a response to letters she pens to a former lover, Arthur’s father, who is on the cusp of running for Mayor, to come save her and the son he denies from their penury. She’s delusional in her hopes of course, but is she also delusional in the whole existence of the relationship in the first place? When Arthur goes seeking the truth, the Mayoral candidate certainly suggests Arthur’s Mum has hallucinated the entire episode.
This conflict of origins, added to the economic pressures and the street beatings, are pushing Arthur to breaking point. He loses his job at a clown agency for bringing a gun to his show for hospitalised children, but in his paranoia he takes it as a set up. We realise that linearity and reality itself are called into question, as we are shown Arthur being called out of the studio audience by a wisecracking chat show host, played by Robert de Niro with smarmy brilliance, but it is all a fantasy. As possibly is the relationship with a female neighbour, who we see in the audience at a comedy club dive where Arthur is trying out his material to deathly silence. And yet in his view, the night is a triumph, capped off by sex with the neighbour. The film’s chilling ending has a drop dead visual image that clues us into the fractured linearity of the narrative.
But it is Joker’s journey into madness that grips for all the movie’s social commentary. Joaquin Phoenix is all ribcage (untickled), angular dancing and scraggly, greasy hair plastering his troubled pate. His uncontrollable manic laugh veers close to sounding like crying. Which is the point. The performance is spellbinding. And the empathy is there. He’s mad, but you can see how he got there. You can see how he could become a symbol for Gotham’s sickness. It’s dark but without the goading slapstick of Heath Ledger in the “Dark Knight”. There is just a single laugh-out moment in the whole film and that’s when a potential victim is trying to escape Joker’s clutches and run for his life. Joker’s material isn’t funny, it’s vicious, brutal and nihilistic. In its vigilantism, the fixation on a TV celebrity, on its vicious humour, it is channelling movies like “Taxi Driver”, “Network”, “The King Of Comedy” and Trevor Griffiths’ stage play “Comedians”, so I couldn’t honestly say it’s fresh and innovative, but it is its own piece of art for all its (highly worthy) antecedents. But, ultimately, it’s Phoenix’s performance and the first-rate characterisation that elevates this movie from the usual cardboard cutout superhero chaff.