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  Joker I Started A Joke
Year: 2019
Director: Todd Phillips
Stars: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen, Shea Whigham, Bill Camp, Glenn Fleshler, Leigh Gill, Josh Pais, Rocco Luna, Marc Maron, Sondra James, Murphy Guyer, Douglas Hodge, Dante Pereira-Olson, Carrie Louise Putrello
Genre: Drama, ThrillerBuy from Amazon
Rating:  5 (from 1 vote)
Review: Gotham City, early nineteen-eighties, and the place is drawing close to a crisis point as there is a strike on by the garbage collectors, but more than that, the atmosphere across every street is one of increasing oppression, desperation and danger. In the middle of this is Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a mentally ill loner who would like to make a difference by making people laugh, hence his occupation as a clown to be hired out for parties and street advertising, anything that needs a stooge in white greasepaint and a loud suit, really. But today as he holds a board promoting a nearby business, he is set upon by a gang of teenage thugs, and something starts to unravel...

Except that something - his mind - has already unravelled when we meet him, so this origin story of the Batman comics' most identifiable villain, probably the most famous comic book bad guy of them all, left his madness with nowhere to develop. Arthur is already crazy, all he needs now is to be armed in an echo of the conservatives' belief that mass shootings and spree killings are the sole preserve of the insane, and therefore worthy of dismissal, the old "guns don't kill people" tenet taken to "crazy people kill people", which was not only unhelpful, but did not include spur of the moment acts of violence. So was co-writer and director Todd Phillips making a statement at all?

According to him, he was not, yet his work here was just vague enough to be embraced by those who thought he was, and the way it could apply across the board to a variety of causes, as I have done in the previous paragraph, spoke more to the multifaceted nature of the Joker character than it did anything in the real world. Just look at the social impact: not the mass shootings from the terminally frustrated that certain commentators warned about, guaranteeing a fascination for a "dangerous" movie from the moviegoers of the world (it garnered over a billion dollars at the international box office), but really employing nothing more than a popularity of Joker masks.

That was amongst the sort of person who goes on marches, anyway, as if they believe rallies can change the world and allying themselves to the upheaval depicted at the finale of this film when in reality they involve few converts and plenty of preaching to the choir. This hand waving by Phillips and Phoenix was frustrating in itself (though not "go out and kill someone" frustrating) as if they refused to commit to any one reading of their creation, not through artistic expression, but because they wanted to appeal to as large a fanbase as they could. Phoenix, at least, was going Method on the set, his dedication to misfits in his filmography well served by Arthur, if not the criminal mastermind of the page, more a hapless catalyst for mayhem through his lack of agency in a city that just didn't care about him. This self-pity didn't seem very Joker-like either until you realised this was not some comic book movie like those Marvel losers down the street, oh no, this was serious!

But even that DC for the grownups style was a pose, and it was kind of sad to see its star putting so much effort into something so deliberately ill-defined: was it complaining that people had become selfish in the internet age, that suspicion and insults ruled discourse? If so, why set it twenty years before the internet took hold? Actually, wouldn't this Joker be close to drawing his pension by the point his Bruce Wayne had become Batman? Continuity fans would not be best served here, but those who liked to spot the reference to other films would be, a lot of Martin Scorsese's obsessives, a touch of Abel Ferrara's urban personal hells, but also a dose of Network with the tables turned to make an unbalanced audience the focus rather than an insider driven mad by the system. This grimfaced approached ran out of fuel halfway through and was forced to riff on comics lore before petering out into mass hysteria, if such a thing is possible. All things to all self-styled commentators, a Joker movie without any jokes - you'd think they could have called Robert De Niro's chat show "You Talkin' To Me?" Music by Hildur Guðnadóttir.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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Todd Phillips  (1970 - )

Former documentary-maker who made Hated (about depraved punk legend GG Allin) and the controversial, little-seen Frat House, before moving onto mainstream Hollywood comedies like Road Trip, Old School and Starsky & Hutch. The Hangover was one of the most successful comedies of its year, and he sequelised it in 2011, directing road movie Due Date in between. In 2019, he claimed to be eschewing comedy to direct Joker, the comic book movie that became a global sensation.

 
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