In ‘Joker’, a villain turned ‘70s anti-hero

Jake Coyle & Lindsey Bahr

AP – An air of menace and a cloud of controversy accompany the arrival of Todd Phillips’ Joker like a thick perfume.

That, in itself, could be something to celebrate. Danger isn’t a quality often found in the sanitised corporate-made movies of today, least of all in the safe, fan-friendly world of comic-book films.

Joker, though, is a calculatedly combustible concoction, designed, like its chaos-creating character, to cause a stir. To provoke and distort. I wish it was as radical as it thinks it is.

Instead, Joker is a mesmerising, misjudged attempt to marry the madness of a disturbed individual to today’s violent and clownish times. It’s a shallow, under-examined movie that renders the dark descent of a troubled man with an operatic fervour.

That this feels so familiar, like the backstories of countless unhinged gunmen that so populate our tragedy-filled newspapers, could be seen as a powerful and grim reflection of today.

Since the film has already so stuck a nerve, perhaps it is. But conjuring psychosis for the sake of a pre-determined origin story, make Joker feel cavalier and opportunistic. Its danger, really, is no deeper than a clown’s make-up.

Joaquin Phoenix as Joker. PHOTOS: AP/ THE WASHINGTON POST
ABOVE & BELOW: The main character of the film, Arthur, is a clown-for-hire and a wannabe stand-up. The film explores how he descends into madness, turning him into Joker

ABOVE & BELOW: Photos show scenes from the film ‘Joker’

Director Todd Phillips (L) and actor Joaquin Phoenix

The template of Joker isn’t anything from the comics (Phillips wrote the film with Scott Silver) but a pair of Martin Scorsese films about twisted loners: Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy. To make the point, Phillips has cast Robert De Niro, the star of both of those films, as a late-night host whose show Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), our Joker-to-be, dreams of being on. Phillips, the maker of male comedies about clung-to adolescence (Road Trip, Old School, The Hangover), has elevated the Joker from DC Comics villain to ‘70s-movie anti-hero.

The Arthur we meet is a clown-for-hire and a wannabe stand-up. In the opening scene, he’s caking his face with makeup in front of a mirror. His smile already has a plainly forced, unnatural form. It’s the crooked outward manifestation of Arthur’s anguish.

Laughter is the symptom of his heavily medicated disturbia (“All I have is negative thoughts,” he told his social-services case worker), a product, we learn, of a childhood of abuse. To those who look at him strangely he hands a card informing them that he laughs inappropriately, like a condition of Tourette’s.

We are, immediately, in a realm very far from the spandexed world of superhero movies. Where there is usually superficial shine, in the human-sized, adult-oriented Joker there is grit and grime. It’s 1981 in Gotham, but the fictional city has never been so unmistakably New York, home also to Scorsese’s Travis Bickle and Rupert Pupkin. Due to a strike, garbage has piled up on the sidewalks. Reports of ‘super rats’ have hit the tabloids. While twirling a sign on the sidewalk (Everything Must Go), Arthur is harassed by a group of teenagers and then beaten and mugged in a nearby alleyway.

For Arthur, everything has already gone. His life is pitiful and unrelentingly bleak. Athur lives with his mother (Frances Conroy). His tenuous grip on employment slips away when a gun, given to him by a coworker after the mugging, slides out of his pants while entertaining children at a hospital.

Phoenix, among the finest actors working, is dramatically thinner here, turning him sinewy and sinister. His face and movement holds the movie together. It’s impossible to look away from an actor so fully, so hypnotically throwing himself into a character, even if there’s an acting-class self-consciousness to the whole production – one surely indebted in spirit to Heath Ledger’s whole-body transformation in The Dark Knight.

But Phoenix has also been better with similarly broken souls in films like The Master and The Immigrant.

In close-up, Phoenix’s smiles are ghastly. He chokes on his laughter. He’s been raised to smile through pain, tragically divorcing himself from expressing his emotions.

Joker is driven not by any outside force but the ominous sense of something bad welling up in the unloved Arthur.

Having won our sympathy through endless indignities, we begin to almost root for him to lash out.

When he does, one night on a nearly empty subway (a subterranean gloom pervades the whole film), Arthur has, in a troubling way, self-actualised.

This is, of course, who he’s meant to be. And it’s that leap, from self-pity wallowing to wanton revenge meted out on a sick society, that has made Joker rightfully debated. Rather than surround Arthur’s horrifying transformation with context, alternatives or rays of light – whether they fall on him or not – Joker simply hitches a ride on his freefall in mania.

There’s a moment when the film could have charted a different path toward a deeper character study. Instead, it gets on with what needs to happen, the chaos necessary to unlock, with a cold-blooded smothering and point-blank shooting.

Arthur’s pain and psychosis has been offered up, in the end, not to lead to any understanding of his condition, but for its violent release, and to link to the required comic-book architecture.

It’s a testament to the potency of Phillips’ vision that Joker has already become such a talking point.

Phillips and Phoenix have made something to reckon with, certainly, and that alone makes it a bold exception in a frustratingly safe genre.

But its biggest danger is in not illustrating but catering to a world gone mad. You have to ask, in the end, why so serious?

WEIGHT LOSS, DANCE AND DE NIRO

Joaquin Phoenix has been widely praised for his transformative portrayal of the man who becomes the Joker in the new film hitting theatres recently. Although he doesn’t like to talk about awards, many believe this could be the year that the three-time nominee finally wins an Oscar.

The 44-year-old Joker star spoke to The Associated Press about his process, why he doesn’t necessarily want to give a playbook for how he did it and the time he worried Robert De Niro was going to throw an ash tray at his head.

On feeling insecure about his methods:

“Some of it just feels personal. I don’t know. Maybe I also get insecure and I go like, ’He shouldn’t be reading that. That’s a stupid thing to read. Who would study that?’ I’m afraid that I might say something that there’ll be some other great actor that I admire that was like, ‘This guy doesn’t know what he’s doing. That’s a terrible idea. Why would you ever study that?’”

On the 52-pound weight loss:

“Once you reach the target weight, everything changes. Like so much of what’s difficult is waking up every day and being obsessed over like 0.3 pounds. Right?

And you really develop like a disorder. I mean, it’s wild.

But I think the interesting thing for me is what I had expected and anticipated with the weight loss was these feelings of dissatisfaction, hunger, a certain kind of vulnerability and a weakness. But what I didn’t anticipate was this feeling of kind of fluidity that I felt physically.

I felt like I could move my body in ways that I hadn’t been able to before.

And I think that really lent itself to some of the physical movement that started to emerge as an important part of the character.”

On finding Joker’s dance moves:

“I think what influenced me the most was Ray Bolger. There was a particular song called The Old Soft Shoe that he performed and I saw a video of it and there’s this odd arrogance almost to his movements and, really, I completely just stole it from him.

He does this thing of turning his chin up. This choreographer Michael Arnold showed me that and tons of videos and I zeroed in on that one.

That was Joker, right? There’s an arrogance to him, really. That was probably the greatest influence. But also disco.”

On the upsides of experimenting:

“There seemed to be an infinite number of ways to interpret every moment or how he might behave in any moment.

“And there wasn’t anything that didn’t make sense.

“So we would do scenes so many different ways and some I would cry and others I would make jokes and others I would be angry and it would be the same scene and they all made sense and that’s so rare.

“There’s something really exciting about that because it keeps you in this state of like perpetual investigation and trying to find something new.

“And I think (director and co-writer) Todd (Phillips) and I were always working to try to surprise each other with some idea.

“There was never a moment that I felt completely relaxed. I was always searching for something else. And there’s something very exciting about that. It’s so much fun acting in that way. Often times it’s the opposite.”

And the downsides:

“For the first time in probably 25 years I watched dailies.

So Todd and I would talk about which takes we thought worked.

But my favourite scene, what both of us thought was my best scene because of a particular take, that scene is not in the movie. It’s a cliche, but it’s a puzzle.

So you take out this scene and it affects the following scene. So a take that might have been really great no longer works.

The best take for the end of his rant on Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro’s talk show host) just didn’t work.

It was a really good take just on its own but cut in with everything else it just didn’t work. An earlier take, one that I didn’t think was very good, was the one that worked best.”

On sassing off to De Niro’s character:

“It was one of my favourite parts, saying ‘Murr-AY’. Todd loved that too. And when I did that I thought: Is De Niro just going to throw an ash tray at me?”

EVERYONE IS TALKING ABOUT ‘JOKER’

There may be no such thing as bad publicity, but the spotlight on Joker is testing the limits of that old cliche.

The origin story about the classic Batman villain has inspired pieces both in defense of and against the movie.

It’s been hailed as the thing that’s going to finally get Joaquin Phoenix an Oscar and also decried for being “dangerous”, ‘’irresponsible” and even “incel-friendly”.

Last week, some parents of victims of the 2012 Aurora movie theater shooting even wrote to the Warner Bros CEO asking for support for anti-gun causes. The studio issued a statement in response saying that the film is not “an endorsement of real-world violence of any kind”.

In his 80 years as part of the culture, the Joker has always had a way of getting under people’s skin — whether it’s because of who the character appeals to, what he represents or even the stories actors tell about how they got into character.

And while reviews are mostly positive, it’s also been heavily scrutinised and put the filmmakers on the defensive

Director and co-writer Todd Phillips doesn’t mind the discussion.

“I’ll talk about it all day,” he said. “I’m not shy about it.”

He just wishes people would see the movie before drawing conclusions.

“It’s a little troubling when people write think pieces without having seen it. And even in their think pieces write, ‘I don’t need to see it to know what it is’. I find it astounding, to be quite frank, how easily the far left can sound like the far right when it suits their agenda,” Phillips said. “To that point, I’ve been disappointed.” The pre-emptive backlash is all the more baffling to Phillips because he hopes it inspires conversations: About guns, about violence and about the treatment of people with mental illness.

“Part of the reason we made the movie is a response to the comic book world of movies,” Phillips said. “Like, ‘Why is this celebrated? Why is this funny? Why is this fun? What are the real world implications of violence?’”

The film itself is a slow-burn character study of how a mentally-ill, middle-aged man named Arthur Fleck becomes the Joker.

When the audience drops in on his life, he’s working as a clown-for-hire, living with his mother in a run-down Gotham apartment and checking in occasionally with a social worker. He has a card that he gives to people to explain that his spontaneous and painful bursts of laughter are because of a medical condition.

His only joy seems to be watching the talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro) in the evenings.

“The truth is you see it and it’s heartbreaking. And he’s heartbreaking,” Phillips said.

“And you know what happens in the movies when you have a world that lacks empathy and lacks love? You get the villain you deserve.” It’s a role that has often required actors to go to difficult places, and Joker has the added complication of being more realistic than most of the other depictions even though it’s still set in a fictional world.

To play Arthur and Joker, Phoenix researched a number of people that he’s reluctant to even name. “Some of the people I studied, I feel what they crave is attention and notoriety,” he said. “I don’t feel like they deserve any more of that.”

He also underwent a drastic physical transformation, losing 52 pounds on an extremely calorie-restricted diet with the supervision of a doctor.

He expected “feelings of dissatisfaction, hunger, a certain kind of vulnerability and a weakness”. Instead, he found the emaciation led to a physical “fluidity” that he didn’t quite anticipate. The set was also fairly fluid in a way, and Phoenix said he and Phillips were constantly discovering new elements to Joker and Arthur.

“There seemed to be an infinite number of ways to interpret every moment or how he might behave in any moment. “And there wasn’t anything that didn’t make sense. So we would do scenes so many different ways and some I would cry and others I would make jokes and others I would be angry and it would be the same scene and they all made sense,” he said.

It made the experience constantly “exciting” and “surprising,” but portraying Arthur/Joker also proved to be “messy and uncomfortable” for the 44-year-old actor.

As for whether or not audiences will use the character as an inspiration or excuse to act out, Phoenix thinks that the onus is on the individual.

“I do think that the audience should be challenged and they should be able to know the difference between right and wrong. I don’t think it’s the filmmaker’s responsibility to teach morality,” Phoenix said. “If you don’t know the difference between right and wrong, then there are all sorts of things that you are going to interpret in the way that you want.”

Both he and Phillips make sure to stress that Joker, which is rated R, is not a kids’ movie. It also won’t be for everyone.

“I just hope people see it and take it as a movie,” Phillips said.

“Do I hope everyone loves it? No. We didn’t make the movie for everyone. Anytime anyone tries to make a movie for everyone it’s usually for nobody.

“You have a choice. Don’t see it is the other choice. It’s ok.”