Joker is a dark, brooding and edgy. It is not the Joker we have known that challenges Bruce Wayne (Batman) he comes before Bruce grows out of childhood.
The story takes place in what is suppose to be the 80s in Gotham (NYC) which is experiencing a garbage strike that adds to the dirt and trash that fill the streets of the gothic east coast city. There is trash splashed words covering the windows of buses, subways, buildings and streets everywhere that Arthur Fleck who is Joker played powerfully by Joaquin Phoenix goes. His home is in a semi-functional building with a shaky elevator, old paint and limited light. Director Todd Phillips makes every effort to paint the city as a foul place where people have accepted the negative environment which surrounds them as they watch TV from depressing apartments and live on just enough to get by. It’s just the opposite of the effort taken to make Los Angeles beautiful in La La Land.
Arthur Fleck is not what we have become used to in the Batman Joker films. Nothing like Cesar Romero’s nearly comic character in the TV adventure of Batman or Heath Ledger who won an academy award for his turn. Jack Nicholson was dangerous and creepy, but for me Mark Hamel in the animated Mask of Phantasm was the most interesting because it followed the comic book atmosphere, color and contrast to a letter.
As the main street in Gotham comes apart we see one music shop which now stands alone in a sell out mode. The other shops and theaters all play to the lower life ambitions of the citizens and visitors. Arthur Fleck has a job holding a sign in front of the music store point out there is a going out of business sale inside. A nasty group of young boys grab his sign and when he catches up with them he is beaten and kicked as they smash the sign. That is the symbol of the life he now lives. It hides however what is later learned about his childhood, his missing father and later his mother’s history. He lives with mom who is not able to function without his help, he is a dutiful son who feeds baths and comforts his mother in her elderly need.
Fleck fits the profile of a dangerous loner. He lives with his mother has few if any friends and wanders aimlessly most of the time. His work comes from playing a clown. Sometime holding a sign and on other occasions at an event for kids in a hospital. Even with that he becomes a victim which explains some of his race to mental imbalance. The broken sign becomes his fault and when another clown gives him a gun he drops it at an event for kids rendering him unemployed. Also because the city is low on tax income his counseling program is cut.
Along with his mother he is a fan of TV late night host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), and as Fleck’s work as a clown ends, he attempts to become a stand up comic with little success. But a break comes when Franklin invites him to guest on his TV program. All of that reminds us of De Niro’s, Rupert Pupkin in the King of Comedy.
With the dark world surrounding him Joker is on the rise and he cuts loose from any balance remaining in his being. He walks like Charley Chaplain, dances in the streets, dawns a new face mask and heads for his climax. He also takes a moment near the end of the film to divulge the beginning story of Batman.
Joker could stand alone without the references to Batman and the Wayne family. At times it looks like a semi documentary of a Naked City episode and with a narrator and that could have worked. So don’t look for what we have seen before this is Joker’s story and his world. Sometime frightening and violent but constantly keeping us on the edge of our seats as we anticipate what deviant action he will take or will be played out against him.
Joker is always walking on a tight rope controlled by a brilliant performance from Joaquin Phoenix that probably could not be carried out by any other actor on the screen today.