No one’s laughing now, Arthur.
This is my review of Joker!
Arthur Fleck is an aspiring comedian who works as a freelance party clown and lives with his ailing mother in a crime-infested Gotham. Arthur suffers from Pseudobulbar affect (PBA for short), a condition in which the sufferer experiences fits of sudden, uncontrollable laughter and/or crying. As a result, Arthur is mostly isolated, and any time he does interact with others his PBA outbursts result in disdain at best and harassment at worst, even after he hands them a card explaining his condition. After a series of misunderstandings, beatdowns and personal failings, Arthur Fleck descends into despair and the Clown Prince of Crime is born.
Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal of Arthur Fleck/Joker is masterfully nuanced. Arthur’s entire character is defined by pain. Though already teetering on the edge of instability, Arthur maintains a barely-flickering hope that he was born into the world to bring laughter and joy. He tries to be kind in a world that forbids kindness, his efforts to spark joy turn to ash, and his own imbalanced mental state prohibit him from receiving the basic human decency he desperately craves. Given that Pseudobulbar affect is not often shown on film, it was relieving to see that his PBA-induced laughter is not overdone or mocked; it is realistically depicted as a socially-isolating condition. The best thing about Phoenix’s performance is that there is both great empathy and caution towards the Joker character. He is a struggling man unable to thrive in a cruel world and turns to crime as a result. His pain is felt throughout the film, but his evil actions later on are not glorified.
I really love that Gotham is a pit of misery in this film. Past Gothams on film have been either too clean or a middle-of-the-road “crime-riddled but not really” vibe. Gotham is a big, loud city where crime and despair meet to dance. The citizens of Gotham range from apathetic and cruel to what I call “nice-in-passing,” the kind of nice where a person briefly asks, “Are you okay?” only to walk away and return to their own preoccupations. This has been the trend of society in recent years, and Joker does not shy away from this reality. While people do try to show niceties to one another, we have forgotten the art of empathy. As much as I love compassionate characters, I appreciate that Arthur didn’t have that one magically kind friend/family member whose disappearance/death is the catalyst of his downward spiral.
This has been said in other reviews and I will say it here: This movie does have a lot to say about today’s society. If anything, the story is a call for empathy. It asks us not to pity the downtrodden, but to make an effort to understand them. All Arthur truly wants is a hug, a pat on the back, for even a total stranger to say, “You’re doing a great job!” but all he receives are backs turned and punches to the face. His wounds from others are then transmitted to others, and the vicious cycle of abuse continues. As much as American society loves the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” narrative, how is a person supposed to reach to the top when their needs are ridiculed, their struggles dismissed, and their dignity is trampled upon?
Arthur lives with his ailing mother, who herself suffers from the delusion that Thomas Wayne will come to rescue them from their dilapidated living conditions. There is a twist revolving her that feels a tad underdeveloped. We learn that she has narcissistic personality disorder, but the actual portrayal of NPD is barely explored. She comes off as more of a defeated, preoccupied, brittle woman than a narcissistic parent who violates personal boundaries and projects their vanities onto their children. Given the film’s concern for mental health, it is sad to see this condition underwritten.
A part of my criteria is a film’s home re-watchability factor. Joker is a great movie, but it is definitely a theater movie, which is the nature of Oscar-contending films. No doubt the film itself would play well in any venue, but the experience is less impactful on a small screen during the day.
God in All Things
In this new segment of CGB reviews, I discuss where Christian elements can be found in film. As bleak as Joker is, God is in the frame, and here’s how.
When I first saw the trailer for Joker, it made me think of Saint Irenaeus’ quote, “The glory of God is the human person fully alive.” What is the opposite of the human person fully alive? The answer: The glory of Hell is the human person fully destroyed, and that is what we see in Joker.
Arthur Fleck is flawed but inherently good, as we all are. In the first half, he expresses his natural desire to bring joy and laughter to the world. However, as the film goes on, he descends into a distorted version of himself. His good qualities diminish and his worst qualities are amplified. When he cannot make the world a better place, he instead submits to the world’s darkness and becomes one with it. The final scene shows that he has brought joy through anarchy and laughter through nihilism, which is the exact opposite of God’s will for us.
When the compassion of Jesus Christ is cut off from our broken world, the cruelty of Satan ensnares the vulnerable. Nothing is more heartbreaking to Jesus than to see His most wounded children turned away from His care.
Saint Dymphna, pray for us.