Monday, October 7, 2019

Joker ~ Why Is There Evil

hy is there evil? Ah yes, the age-old question rears its ugly head once again. Todd Phillips promises to answer that question, at least in the case of Batman's arch-nemesis in "Joker." As I walked in for my screening, I quickly noticed an armed police officer standing near the entrance.  I tend to not listen to what others have been saying, but with all the hub-bub about mass shootings, I understood why he was there.  

The film opens on a busy Gotham street looking eerily like the 1980's New York. Joaquin Phoenix ("Inherent Vice," "Walk the Line" ) is playing the hapless Arthur Fleck all decked out with white paint on his face, a rubber skull cap with green bozo hair and silly small bowler hat and the red rubber nose. He is twirling a sign in a gaudy clown suit. This is not the iconic image we all have come to know from images past. He is in front of a store that is going out of business. I didn't realize that they had sign twirlers in the '80s, but hey. 

A group of kids come running by and grabbing his sign, and they take off.  Arthur, in his giant clumsy clown shoes, gives chase.  They lead him into an alley, and Arthur follows. As he sees his quarry in sight, he is blindsided by a kid with the sign slams him in the face, and Arthur goes down.  The kids viciously begin kicking him.  They kick him in the back, the side, the ribs, and in the groin. You immediately feel bad for Arthur. But that is what writer and direct Phillips wants you to explore. He wants you to feel sorry for Arthur. Don't fall for it. 

As origin stories go, "Joker" is superb. The scene is set. A cold, cruel world where the common man is marginalized. Arthur lives in a run-down apartment with his mother, Penny. Frances Conroy () plays his mother throughout the film as one would expect a loving mother with a disability would be. "Put on a happy face," Arthur intones as he tells people he meets is what his mother always told him. Fleck also tells them that his mother says that he was put on this Earth to make people smile. In the run-down apartment building that he lives in, we meet Sophie (Zazie Beetz - "Deadpool," "Atlanta"), and her daughter in an elevator. Luckily for Fleck, that suddenly stops giving them a moment to make eye contact and give Arthur the moment to focus on a possibility.

As the film moves steadily towards his transformation into "Joker," we find Arthur and ourselves in a cold dark world of class upheaval. A world fraught with rudeness, cruelty,  and where the truth is turned upside down. Sound familiar? It should.

When "Jaws" came out in 1975, and "Alien" in 1979, we had monsters that evil was their nature. They killed the innocent because that is what they do.  In John Carpenter's original "Halloween," Michael Myers was just evil. He wasn't, as in Rob Zombie's version, a neglected and bullied child whose mother is not only single, but a stripper ignores the signs that her son is spiraling down into madness. We already knew the Joker was criminally insane. Did we really need to know why? We knew that Dracula was not only a vampire but evil as well. In both Bram Stoker's novel and in the 1931 Bela Lugosi classic, we are not told why he is a vampire or of any wrongs that God may have inflicted on the Count. It doesn't matter, he is evil. 

The picture that director Todd Phillips paints is one of man, used and abused just trying to fulfill his dreams.  What dreams are these? First, he wants to be like his hero late-night host, Murray Franklin. Enter Robert DeNiro ("Family," "Godfather") plays the Carson like talk show host in a manner, not unlike Jerry Lewis in the 1982 film DeNiro starred in with the late comedian, "The King of Comedy." The talk show host is aloof and to some degree, cruel. Joaquin Phoenix's performance is excellent, the story is both brilliant and direct. 

DC fans will both love and hate this adaptation, and I think in this political and conscious gun divide will both adore and deride the film with a good reason for both points of view. Movies are a reflection of our society, and this is precisely what this film is. I always said that a hero is only as good as his enemy or the villain of the story. When it comes to the Joker, Heath Ledger and Jack Nicholson did it for me. That being said, go see this film, you might find yourself something within you that finds "Joker" appealing. "Joker" runs 2 hours and is rated "R" for restricted.

Movie Data
Genre: Crime, Drama, Thriller
Year:  2019
Starring:  Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy
Director: Todd Phillips
Producer(s): Bradley Cooper, Joseph Garner, Aaron L. Gilbert, Walter Hamada, Todd Phillips
Writer: Todd Phillips, Scott Silver
Rating: R
Running Time: 122 minutes
Release Date: 10/4/2019

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