Didja hear the one about Travis Bickle and Rupert Pupkin walking into a bar and ordering a “Scorsese”? The bartender casually reaches underneath the counter, raises his shotgun and gives ’em both a shot!
In director Todd Phillips’ take on DC Comics mastervillain the Joker, Joaquin Phoenix takes the white-skinned, green-haired Clown Prince we know down the dead-end alley and reshuffles the deck until the Knave of Aces sheds his skin as a distressed, uninvited comedian upstart and develops into the Monarch of Maniacs (one of his many aliases).
Unable to cope in an uncivil world where gangster etiquette is the lay of the land, Arthur Fleck is on medication and on a completely different plain to the extent that he cannot decipher whether he exists or not.
Created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger as the criminally insane prankster to foil Batman, the Joker’s true identity is something of a mystery. As a “No Name Maddox,” this common thief accidentally falls into a vat of disfiguring chemicals that turns him into a pale reflection of the crazy world at large. But the comics villain is only part of the equation in Joker.
It’s been confirmed over time that the original inspiration for the Joker came from the silent film The Man Who Laughs, about a child that is mutilated, slit from ear-to-ear in an eternal grin to provide the world with more freaks! Phillips’ Joker uses a yellow and green flavored spectrum to seek the answers as to how he came about in the proto-Gotham City of dark nights.
Arthur Fleck is ignored, nearly invisible except for an incessant cackling laugh – explained here as the result of a neurological condition akin to Tourettes, producing uncontrollable laughter at inappropriate times. Fleck spends his time caring for an ailing mother who once worked for Thomas Wayne, the millionaire corporatist now running for mayor of Gotham. She still sees Wayne as a compassionate employer but media coverage suggests otherwise when he makes insensitive comments like, “Those of us who’ve made something of ourselves look at those who haven’t as clowns!” Arthur takes such off-the-cuff remarks personal. His aspiration for success is to appear on a late-night show hosted by Murray Franklin (played by Robert De Niro, reprising Jerry Lewis’ role in The King of Comedy). When Franklin airs one of Fleck’s stand-up performances – on par to rival Neil Hamburger for sheer scatological relevance – he comments, “Check out THIS joker!”
Those two comments carry profound consequences, culminating in developing Arthur’s anarchistic response.
Throughout the film, subtle pop culture references cement the foundation for producing the harlequin of hate: Graffiti in Arthur’s apartment building depicts Reid Fleming: World’s Toughest Milkman! who single-handedly slugs his way through life! Frank Sinatra’s (mob-connections aside) “That’s Life” (a Warner Bros./Reprise release) serves as something of a theme song for Fleck, and when you recognize that Sinatra is depicted in grease-paint on an earlier album sleeve, titled Sinatra Sings For Only the Lonely, the title alone recalls Taxi Driver‘s Travis Bickle, identified as “God’s lonely man”!
But all this pomp and purgatory aside, Joker is an homage to the Warner Bros. crime films in the purest sense.
During the early years for talkies, Warner Bros. survived the Depression with its gangster films. Cagney as a middle-class kid lured by gangsters into petty robbery in Public Enemy. Little Caesar, with its classic line, “Mother of mercy, is this the end of Rico?” positioning the gangster as the cornerstone of an inhospitable world. Those films were criticized immensely for their sentimentalized portrayal of crime with its unrestrained, immediate violent solutions. Still today, Joker got its undue criticism even before its release!
Both in the comics and the movies, the street kid, shunned and mistreated, turns to robbery but advances to murder. When Caesar Romero became the first version seen in 22 episodes of the ’60s TV series, there was no precedent, so he winged it – relying on his background as a dancer combined with his menacing (though suave) leading man looks, bringing them to bear on Harpo Marx antics. It worked for then. Future interpretations threw down the gauntlet to make the character more of a terroristic loner, a madman. Hell, Heath Ledger locked himself in a motel room for 43 days to capture his psychopathic slant. A bit of all that has found its way into Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker performance. Resentful, vengeful and obsessive, prone to elaborate hallucinations – no one yet sees the world as he sees it, and the only one who will is a 10-year-old boy sliding down banister poles and fascinated by magic tricks!
No discussion of this film is valid without noting that Phoenix fuels the movie from start to finish with a reverberating psychotic tenacity, creating the impression of some broad-stroke apocalypse to come. His lunatic-proud Arthur takes center frame as the sorrowful, cursed, transformative comedian responds with violence to assert his presence.
His behavior is essential stylized gangster deviance straddling the insider and outsider realm, where people who wield power are the ones he sees as dangerous! As a throwback to the golden age of Warner Bros., Joker is as much about the current social malaise that swirls like quicksand at our feet, pulling us toward the fracture of dismissed relationships and a reality that does not seem all that real.