Movie Review: Joker

Joker, seen in Hollywood’s historic Cinerama Dome, is as plain, satirical and chilling as its title. There is no article. No Cesar Romero, no Jack Nicholson, no Heath Ledger to animate and add antics to this version of what begins the terrible Batman comic book villain. He’s just joker.

Aren’t we all? This is what director Todd Phillips, who co-wrote the script, aims to provoke the audience to think about. You there, so-and-so with the laughing face, knee-slapping after 30 seasons of Simpsons and neverending cynicism on South Park, Sopranos, Seinfeld, Saturday Night Live and every slice of sinister humor embedded in this culture from sniveling Greg Gutfeld to sniveling Bill Maher and, in particular, the late night put-down set? You’re part of what’s driving man to madness and mayhem. Really. You are, Joker shows and tells. Here, Phillips depicts with a penetrating portrayal by Joaquin Phoenix (Her, Walk the Line) of the much-maligned, non-college-bred white male, which is why the “social justice” thugs hate this film sight unseen, the various factors that breed one of today’s most persecuted minorities, the American outcast, into monsters.

Comics fans, especially original Batman fans, and I am neither, will recognize the cues, though thankfully this isn’t one of those atrocious “Easter egg” Disney Marvel films in which the audience is expected to hunt and howl for ads, plugs and marketing tie-ins. But I see Joker as much as antifa’s origins story as Joker’s. Want to know how the masked anarchist and his roving gang of socialist, anti-wealth thugs comes to rule the streets? Here, again, have a look. This makes Joker less a great movie than an extremely disturbing social commentary, which is what I think it really is. It’s a good movie for what it is.

But it’s a scathing indictment of the cynical, Puritanical, maniacal axis which spawns attempts to sanitize the West of any sign of free thought, expression and association, including “social justice” types’ attempts to squash and suppress this film, which echo the irrationalism of the Me, Too and similar movements. Joker certainly gushes blood and gore but it owes more to 1976’s Network than other villain tales. In this sense, fanboys, geeks and mindless Rotten Tomatoes types may spin into dumbed-down withdrawal from all the thought that’s gone into Joker and what comes off the screen.

The setting, which is precisely accurate with one glaring videotape exception, is financially troubled New York City stand-in Gotham City in the 1970s, which the man deemed a joker listens to on the radio as he gets ready for work. The rich get richer in some vaguely cronyist society while everyone else gets poorer, especially the sick, weak and creative. That he makes a living from holding a sign saying “everything must go” sets up the film’s theme that making a joke out of what one ought to take seriously breeds an utter and total abandonment of optimism, benevolence and reason.

The lead character honestly does his best to remain human. He works. He takes help when it’s offered. He sees a mental health therapist. He keeps a journal. He takes care of his sick mother. He knows he’s losing a grip on reality and he addresses this, too. His sole vice is that he smokes cigarettes. But he remains an outcast. Like so many of today’s malcontents, such as the mass murderer a policeman pointed out had pleaded for help when he was caught in a downward spiral (read about it here), he is both spawned as monster and spurned as man.

“The worst part of having a mental illness is people expect you to behave as if you DON’T,” he writes with a prophetic all caps in his journal. But he shows up, again and again and again, for Mother, for work as a promotional and children’s hospital clown, for therapy. Phillips in his best choice depicts the Joaquin Phoenix character facing a long flight of concrete stairs. You almost feel his weary body shrink from the sight of it. Knowing it’s a slog, he climbs, day after day, perhaps like you do, striving to make ends meet, to meet the demands of the day. Draw a bath for Mother, watch the late night TV host (Robert De Niro, tying into his own performance in King of Comedy) check the mail, show up for work here, ride the subway there. Like those stairs, it’s a slog.

But the outcast, facing injustice, drudgery and worse, makes the effort. Perhaps like you do, too. This Joker counts upon. It’s like it knows one’s innermost struggles, shames and hardships. And the toll hardship takes on clarity. It’s hard to say where he crosses the line into delusion, like a Jesus or an eco-freak railing against the rapture or the weather, or, appropriate to Joker, a nihilist raging against “the Man”, the rich or the corporation. But Joker dramatizes the cackle in the climb (and, later, in the descent) on those stairs. And in a stunning marker of a horrible crime on a one-tracked train gliding toward Gotham’s skyline like a viral bug racing toward the nerve center.

Lights flicker and dim, on the subway and in the hospital, as art by Stephen Sondheim and Charlie Chaplin accompanies the batty, emaciated clown’s modern interpretive dance, dolloping the film with an impending sense of loopy dread, doom and chronic despair. Whether in a street riot against the rich or a men’s room confrontation with a businessman turned politician, Joker gives a great sense of the character’s being alone, completely alone, the lonely one being beaten down and ridiculed while he dies laughing and, as some or much of the world seems right now, goes slowly insane.

Finally, the misanthrope rides a graffiti-riddled bus crossing a bridge symbolizing perhaps his last moments of semblance before the mob subsumes his soul, as matters of motherhood, madness and mayhem collide in one perfectly logical prelude to what putting on a happy face really means in practice. Smile or don’t smile; in Joker, the joke’s on you. More exactly, it’s on the cult of today’s code of Nothing Worship, which aggregates men’s thoughts, sneers at honesty and blurs the serious and the sniveling to the point of delusion while turning what Victor Hugo once called “the man who laughs” into the one who’s no longer able to distinguish what ought not to be destroyed.

 

Movie Review: Her

Her posterHer is more like a strange and abstract character study than a motion picture. It is more like a mood piece than a piece of cinema. The story such as it is concerns slices of life for one lonely divorced man who, like many, possibly most, straight men in today’s culture, whines about life, obsesses about technology and thrives and suffers – all while seeking it out – upon total faith in and submission to the post-feminist, domineering female.

In Her, brought interestingly and neurotically to life by the talented, bizarre Joaquin Phoenix, the center of his world is voiced by Scarlett Johansson as an operating system. Her makes the case for approximating intimacy as against having it for real in a world where intimacy is often itself faked and approximated. The man with pleading eyes writes greetings for some nondescript company in some nondescript future of Los Angeles. Life in the future is dismal, gray, slow and cold. Much like it is today. People are constantly detached and disaffected in chronic transit and transition and going nowhere fast. The world is full of lonely souls, to paraphrase Jackson Browne, only more so. None more so than Phoenix’s sad, near-suicidal sack.

He falls for the OS in waves. It seems impossible to contemplate how this could happen but it does and, just when you start anticipating the sex issue and how to deal with that major obstacle, him and her have a plan for that, too. It still seems unlikely to succeed, as society starts to migrate into more such relationships with people’s heads down, minds buried in their machines, but then the evidence mounts that makes one think. His character gets out to the beach, publishes a book, makes connections with other humans, all for the first time. He even makes peace with his failures in a way. Along the way, a friend and neighbor (Amy Adams) experiences similar pangs of loneliness. Like the automatons in The Time Machine by H.G. Wells, they march with faith in the tradition of whatever technology toward nothingness. Her tells it and shows life as it all too often is, prompting the audience to think. Adept at creating a sense of the solitary and dramatizing how people substitute tech for life as they mistake egoism with egotism (particularly those who advocate for the former), Her is an intriguing lesson, though nothing more. At best, the ponderous picture makes one aware of man’s relationship to machines and man’s capacity to build machines to impair or enhance one’s life, leaving such questions unanswered.

Her in all its weirdness mirrors what the West without Western philosophy becomes: a world of men and women who do not connect; a herd of cynical, insular narcissists with no clue how to move the world let alone make progress for whom the most advanced technology is greased for the most primitive regression. Will they reclaim what ego remains and restore themselves to human splendor? The answer filmmaker Spike Jonze provides leaves it up to the audience.