Todd Phillips’ odd superhero gloss has a lot of distractions built into it, the most obvious one being its non-relationship to the Batman franchise (or franchises, depending on how doctrinnaire you are) as a feature that is only tangentially relevant to the Dark Knight. The other distraction is the way Phillips uses our collective movie memory of New York City in the 70s and 80s. It doesn’t matter if you weren’t there at the time or even if you weren’t born yet: if you’re a moviegoer you know the grungy production values that are de riguer for movies set in the pre-Clinton administration Big Apple. Here, of course, it’s called Gotham City, and Phillips’ main goal seems to be to ride us through analogues of all that era’s big crime stories, from Son of Sam to the infamous garbage strikes to the Bernhard Goetz shootings. His ability to connect it all to our current crisis of income inequality is a neat trick.
But a trick is all it is. The movie spends its entire time in the company of the colossal loser Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a seriously disturbed man of no determinate age with no discernible background except that represented by the single mother (France Convoy) who raised him and who now is slowly dissolving into senile dementia, a plot device that’s a bit of a cheat since there are hints that mom isn’t suffering from senior moments as much as full-on psychosis that has been passed on wholesale to her son. Fleck makes his living as a clown-for-rent, the kind of guy who frolics in front of store openings hoping to draw people inside. That Fleck is particularly bad at this is the first clue that Phillips is being less than sincere in his plotting. The second clue is that Fleck suffers from a named psychological condition that causes him to laugh uncrontrollably for no reason. Consequently, he is regularly beaten up by teen thugs and ridiculed by his colleagues, a particularly humiliating circumstance given that they’re literally clowns, too. One night on the subway, a group of drunk yuppie stockbroker types turn their lascivious attention away from a woman to Fleck’s grease-painted wreck and start taunting him, and he makes them sorry they ever did that. Naturally, this makes the news and the anonymous clown is suddenly a hero to the city’s down-and-out, unwashed, raring-to-riot lower classes.
Fleck’s dream is to become a standup comic and his one attempt ends in cringe-inducing failure, but in a kind of Andy Kaufman twist of meaning, a tape of the performance makes its way to the city’s big late night talk show host (Robert De Niro, upending the character he played in King of Comedy), who invites him to the show for reasons that can only be characterized as stupid.
Phillips does a good enough job of joining all these disparate plot elements into a credibly solid narrative, and the one point of entry into the Batman mythos is a kind of genius move that, unfortunately, would make more sense in a story that was truly going to lead to some sort of origin story, but according to reports there’s no plan to take this weird movie any further. And I think that’s just as well. Much will still be written about Phoenix’s incredibly broad performance, but in a movie that is as certifiably bonkers as this, it doesn’t make as much of an impression as you might think it should. The Joker’s on you.
Opens Oct. 4 in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Nihonbashi (050-6868-5060), Toho Cinemas Hibiya (050-6868-5068), Marunouchi Picadilly (050-6875-0075), Shinjuku Wald 9 (03-5369-4955), Shinjuku Picadilly (050-6861-3011), Toho Cinemas Shinjuku (050-6868-5063), Toho Cinemas Shibuya (050-6868-5002), Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills (050-6868-5024).
Joker home page in Japanese.
photo (c) 2019 Warner Bros. Ent. & (c) DC Comics