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Front Page - Friday, October 11, 2019

Critic's Corner: ‘Joker’ tackles some pretty heavy issues. Seriously

I recently read a film review in which the writer said he “staggered” out of the theater after seeing the movie. I assumed he was exaggerating for effect. Then I saw “Joker,” the new psychological thriller starring Joaquin Phoenix in the eponymous role.

I didn’t stagger out of the theater as the credits rolled, but I did remain seated in stunned disbelief. I simply could not wrap my head around how this movie exists in today’s climate.

On my way out, I passed several homemade signs taped to the ticket booth windows warning people that “Joker” is not a typical comic book film and that no one under 17 would be admitted without a parent or guardian.

Boy, are those signs right. Comic book movies generally provide fun, frivolous entertainment with a lot of action, a little humor and good triumphing over evil.

None of that defines “Joker.” There’s no action in the film; co-writer and director Todd Phillips takes one stab (pun intended) at humor, but it’s so twisted, I laughed only in spite of myself; and the movie exists in a world where the lines between good and evil are so blurred, they all but disappear.

Instead of providing popcorn-munching, Slurpee-sipping thrills, “Joker” is a plunging dive into the mind of a mentally sick man. And once you’re immersed in its waters, you can either yield to the currents or swim for the exit.

Either way, Iron Man is not going to swoop in and break the tension with a sarcastic quip.

If there’s a movie to which “Joker” can best be compared, it’s Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver.” You know the film; it’s the one in which a mentally fractured Vietnam vet played by Robert De Niro looks in a mirror and says, “You talkin’ to me?” and then pulls a gun on his reflection.

Like Travis Bickle, Arthur Fleck is a broken individual (who, maybe not coincidentally, also scribbles his thoughts in a journal). Unlike the Jokers portrayed in other DC Comics stories, he didn’t become disfigured by taking a chemical bath while fighting Batman; instead, events in his life have damaged him and reshaped him into a twisted individual.

How Arthur came to be that way, the difficulties he has existing in a world made by and for mentally healthy people and the way this world sweeps Arthur under the proverbial rug is the focus of Phillips’ and co-writer Scott Silver’s uncompromising and unapologetic script.

Phillips and Silver reimagine Joker as an impoverished, socially awkward man who lives with his mother and works as a clown-for-hire. Although mentally ill, he’s not yet evil. Instead, he wants only to make people laugh, to care for his aging mother and to daydream about the pretty woman down the hall who was nice to him on the elevator.

Instead of rushing to turn Arthur into Batman’s most vile nemesis, Phillips and Silver slowly lay a strong foundation for Joker’s mental illness and gradually build toward the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

It’s a reflective but depressing journey through a derelict, trash-hewn Gotham and daily encounters with sometimes cruel, sometimes thoughtless people who chip away at Arthur’s crumbling psyche.

At the center of all this is a towering, unchained performance by Phoenix, who must have spent untold hours perfecting Arthur’s involuntary bursts of choking laughter. His performance is different from Heath Ledger’s mythic turn in “The Dark Knight” in the sense that “Joker” asks viewers to pity the character instead of marvel at his dark appeal, but it’s just as powerful in the way it services the film in which he’s performing.

Also good is De Niro as Murray Franklin, a talk show host who publicly humiliates Arthur. It’s always a pleasure to see De Niro on the screen, but I especially liked how his turn as Franklin allowed him to riff on Jerry Lewis’ character in Scorsese’s “King of Comedy,” in which DeNiro plays a demented comedian.

Like I said, I’m stunned DC and Warner Bros. made this version of “Joker.” It’s a good film, but it also brazenly tackles a pressing social issue – the violence committed by disaffected males in this country – in a way that’s going to rub people the wrong way.

That can be a good thing, especially if it sparks a productive discussion. I’m just shocked DC used one of its most valuable commodities – the Batman universe – to make a controversial statement.

I wasn’t the only one who sat in silence for a few minutes after “Joker” ended; several others quietly stared at the screen, possibly asking themselves, “What did I just see?”

They had seen a challenging movie that subverts people’s expectations. Because of that, they also saw a film that should not exist at a time when Disney blockbusters are ruling the box office. The mere idea that “Joker” was made is, well, staggering.