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'Joker': Doesn't Kid Around
By Michael S. Goldberger, iBerkshires Film Critic
05:12PM / Wednesday, October 09, 2019
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If van Gogh were alive today and dabbling in film, I expect that he might create something as artistically maddening as Todd Phillips' "Joker." But we must tread carefully. The controversy is there for the taking. 
 
Joaquin Phoenix's Arthur Fleck, who will ultimately evolve into his alter ego, the Joker, before the closing credits fall on this fantastically directed, acted and produced "Batman" offshoot, is off the hook in every definition of the term. Thus the question is begged: Is it OK to derive entertainment from the criminally insane?
 
Phillips, who co-wrote this magnum opus with Scott Silver, throws all decorum and caution to the wind as he lavishes broad, violently-infused brushstrokes across a canvas hellbent on saying whatever it takes to get across its explosive meditation on the shocking sources and depths of evil. As we follow Arthur's devolution from simply sad Momma's Boy working for a clown rental company to a full-fledged crazy man on the loose in Gotham City, only our variety of cringe changes ... a different one for each new and expanded atrocity.
 
But what we suspect disturbs us most is the horrible, enigmatic truth that swirls at the vortex of the tale. It's something about the human animal either deep in our DNA and attributable to a brutal, prehistoric past, or, much worse, an ignominious, bad person gene we'd like to believe doesn't exist. It's precisely the perversity that has us so freaked out about the current situation in Washington ... the total disconnect from, and abandonment of, propriety and the nobility of truth.
 
But like those who are playing at government, Arthur has his own truth: a frighteningly aberrant idea of reality, status, purpose and satisfaction that can rationalize the very lowest form of human behavior. And just to punctuate its heinousness, he randomly, and at the most inappropriate of times, emits a howling laugh, the cause of which is credited to his bizarre pathology. You don't want to meet this guy down the proverbial blind alley.
 
So of course we are set to wondering, good people that we are: Is it the bad seed that is holding province over Arthur Fleck and his destiny, or is it the environment that has so corrupted his soul? Gosh knows the script makes a rather ugly case for the latter. 
 
Reminiscent of Manhattan before the big cleanup a few decades ago, Gotham's graffiti, decrepitude and rampant crime is indeed enough to make one blinking, blimey loony.
 
Unapologetic references to Scorsese-inspired takes on urban nihilism such as "Mean Streets" (1973), "Taxi Driver" (1976) and "The King of Comedy"(1982), with the special added whimsy of Robert De Niro playing a talk show host who represents Arthur's idea of fame, paint a dreary mural of the hopelessness that can envelop a metropolis. But residing somewhere in the ignoble realm of the eye that haunted us in Poe's "Tell-Tale Heart" or the most dastardly highway pileup, there is a psycho-visceral dynamic that beckons, nay, demands, our attention.
 
That said, my inclination is not to conveniently analyze "Joker" in the sub-species of film but, rather, to ponder it in its greater, parent phylum of art, no differently than if we were peering at a painting on a gallery wall. There is an intense freedom of expression here, a proud ostentation unafraid of offending sensibilities, and absolutely no compulsion to color within the lines.
 
Still, as Phoenix prances and dances in balletic chorus to his verbal and physical etching of the living nightmare that is the Joker in his inceptive form, we can't help but feel some good old-fashioned empathy. It may not be to him personally, but to the infinite number of terribly troubled mortals residing on the outlying fringes of what we call normal — compartmentalized into expedient, definable categories even though maladies of the brain are actually as individual as snowflakes. And it's the constant reminder of that presently unknowable perplexity as Arthur runs obsessively roughshod on anything that gets in the way of his rampage that scares us most.
 
What really makes one snap? Can it happen to me? And again and again as Arthur turns up the horror of his gripe against a world where he hasn't experienced a single happy day of his life, we ask if it's OK to make such a character the subject of a mainstream film whose primary audience will view not in the cause of reform, but as titillating entertainment?
 
While it is often hyperbole born of ebullient stupefaction that causes us to say that no one else could have played a certain role, in the case of Phoenix's tour de force it just may be true, so profound is his study in outrage. And while there is some judiciously placed gallows humor to somewhat mitigate the mind-blowing stream of anxiety, unease and straight up terror, "Joker" is never a laughing matter.
 
"Joker," rated R, is a Warner Bros. release directed by Todd Phillips and stars Joaquin Phoenix, Francis Conroy and Robert De Niro. Running time: 122 minutes
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