Tuesday, 19 November 2019
Joaquin Phoenix's performance overwhelms Joker. It's by far the film's biggest component, crowding out a rigid sense of reality, the smoking sewer setting and, even, Robert De Niro. Phoenix plays Arthur Fleck, a struggling, mentally ill comedian who is no longer able to access the medication that keeps him level after budget cuts in a rotting, overripe Gotham City. Locating the action somewhere in the early 1980s may allow the filmmakers to pile the streets with static garbage and dress everyone up in layered corduroy, but Joker's social issues are timely - an uncaring ruling class mock the disenfranchised through word and deed, prompting a popular uprising.
Todd Phillips' film, much like The Dark Knight Rises before it, is only interested in these developments as colour to chart an idea of acceleration. Arthur Fleck neither buys into nor attempts to escalate the clown protests his criminal actions inspire. Fleck himself states that he has no political aim or objective, he's just reacting to the hand he has been dealt. This statement underlines an issue in Joker's plotting. Despite all the terrible revelations thrown Fleck's way, success lands in his lap with very little active manipulation. Fleck doesn't glom onto his disenfranchised copycats, he doesn't need to. One car-crash stand-up performance, somehow taped for posterity, lands him exactly where he needs to be - in the company of De Niro's bruiser chat show host, Murray Franklin.
De Niro's work, particularly the actor's collaborations with Martin Scorsese, are positioned as antecedent to Joker. A collage of moments to be reconfigured or riffed on. The chimeric Fleck obviously combines elements of Rupert Pupkin and Travis Bickle (the straining musculature of Max Cady is in the mix too), but while The King of Comedy and Taxi Driver frequently affected a dispassionate, observational distance between camera and subject, Phoenix's work bleeds out of the frame and into his film's structure. Significant portions of Joker take place in and around Fleck's waking delusions, fantasies in which he is able to connect with a father figure or a love interest. This interior life is relatively wholesome, even meek then. That the comedian is raised to the level of a chaotic, modern messiah recalls the queasy incredulity at the centre of Monty Python's Life of Brian. So while Fleck never cynically leverages the disorder he arouses, Phillips and co-writer Scott Silver give themselves up to it, using Fleck's slippery grasp on reality to litter their film with orphan scenes of Phoenix plying his trade without any pressure to knit these strange little asides back into the cohesive whole.