He goes by many names, but what ever you call him, his white face, green hair, purple suit, and distinctive cackling laugh tells you that this individual is someone you should NOT be messing with! But how did this lethal clown become the man he is today? Finally, we get a film all about… THE JOKER!
First off, forget everything you’ve seen or read in any comic book, graphic novel, or movie. There’s NO Ace (or Axis) Chemicals, NO Red Hood gang, and NO Batman. Co-writer & director Todd Phillips has gone all Travis Bickle (ala Taxi Driver) to give us an alternate universe twist on the Joker. It’s a crime-riddled Gotham City in the 80’s with ‘super’ rats, a messy garbage strike, and one very eff’d-up guy named Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) who, besides being on heavy medication, suffers from a type of Tourettes syndrome where he laughs uncontrollably when he’s under alot of stress. Oh, he also lives in a dingy apt with his sickly mother, Penny (Frances Conroy).
Arthur is having a seriously bad week: his job as a party clown has dried up, his doctors weekly appointments have expired, the dreams of becoming a stand-up comedian aren’t going well, and he’s beginning to have delusions of being on his favorite TV show, The Murray Franklin Show, starring Johnny Carson-like host, Murray Franklin (Robert DeNiro). Slipping slowly into madness and going of his meds, Arthur feels better after being involved in a fatal subway shooting and then meeting his single-mom neighbor (Zazie Beetz). But after a botched meeting with Gotham’s mayor-to-be, Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), things will never be the same again.
After seeing his dreadful act at a nightclub, Murray Franklin gives Arthur his dream shot; an appearance on his late night TV show. But as the city sits on the precipice of a lit powder keg, tonight will be like no other! One thing is for sure, don’t expect the quintessential Joker here from movies like The Dark Knight, Batman, or Suicide Squad. This is Todd Phillips skewed vision, so no chemical vats or Harley Quinn’s to give DC fans their jollies. This is a deep dive into the disturbed, psychologically twisted, and criminally insane mind of a man driven to his breaking point.
I don’t know about YOU, but take away all the comic book aspects and backstories that (almost) everyone knows and loves about the Joker and what are you left with? Screenwriter Phillips (The Hangover Trilogy) and Scott Silver (8 Mile) have deconstructed the mythos and given us a very, very, very long exercise in artistic craftsmanship while having it feel empty and soulless. Precious little in biting humor (the Joker’s stock in trade–again his comic book persona), the movie drags along doing the one thing it set out to do: showcase a deft-defying performance by Joaquin Phoenix.
Phillips does a masterful job in filming the archaic world of Arthur, his inner demons, and the miserable life around him, but fails to give it a beat that rises it above the other manic depressive monsters in movies we’ve seen before. Only the last ten minutes are truly riveting and nail-biting; giving us what should have been the entire film’s scope. Phoenix is really in his element here: dropping 52lbs, looking gaunt and morose, he is spell-binding, completely immersing himself into the role in a frighteningly way. It’s an Oscar-winning performance if ever I saw one; it’s a pity the source material wasn’t a better one. Gloomy, dark, and dreadfully dull in places, this sideways Joker adaptation is not for the purist (#notmyJoker) at heart.
Speaking from a fan-boy’s point-of-view, I think it would have been SO much cooler if this movie would have been adapted from the graphic novel, The Killing Joke, which has the Joker’s origin story in it. But, alas, it does not. *sigh* Also, allow me to address the recent hysteria about all the “violence” in this movie, which has risen to epic proportions. While there IS some violence, it’s nothing as compared to Rambo: Last Blood, which is a total bloodbath and shows MORE graphic, stomach-churning violence than this film! So why is THIS movie being singled out? A publicity stunt, maybe? Hmmmm…
The Man Who Laughs (1928
Joker director Todd Phillips said he drew inspiration from several films: The King of Comedy, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Taxi Driver, and this movie. Shot in glorious black & white and done in the silent film era, this little known story from famed author Victor Hugo is lurid, poignant, and very creepy.
It’s the 1680’s in England and evil King James II (Samuel DeGrasse) sentences his political enemy, Lord Clancharlie (Conrad Veidt), to death in the iron maiden. Ouch! Worse yet, he had his 10-year-old son, Gwynplaine, disfigured with a permanent smile by a Dr. Hardquannone (George Siegmann). Alone and abandoned on his own, young Gwynplaine finds an abandoned blind baby girl and soon finds shelter in the care of kindly, but odd carnival owner Ursus (Cesare Gravina). Fast-forward many years and an adult Gwynplaine (Veidt again) has become “The Laughing Man”, the rock star of clowns in a traveling circus.
He and blind Dea (Mary Philbin) have fallen in love, but Gwynplaine remains distant, believing himself unworthy of her affection due to his disfigurement. He often hides his mouth with a cloth or scarf. Meanwhile, King James’ former conniving jester, Barkilphedro (Brandon Hurst), has climbed up the ladder of success through manipulation and major sucking-up. He’s now the right hand man to pompous Queen Anne (Josephine Crowell) and wild-child Duchess Josiana (Olga Baklanova), who shockingly indulges in rampant and outgoing sexual escapades.
After an attempted blackmail by Dr. Hardquannone, Barkilphedro discovers Gwynplaine’s true lineage (son of Lord Clancharlie) and rightful inheritance, which is currently possessed by Duchess Josiana. AND the only way for her to keep her estate and wealth is to marry the clown! Using a devious plan, she lures Gwynplaine away and tries to seduce him, but she can’t get past his hideous carved grin and he realizes that Dea is his one true love. But that little set-back isn’t going to stop Barkilphedro, so he tricks Ursus & Dea into thinking that Gwynplaine died in prison so he can take his rightful place in the House of Commons with all the other royal snobs. Will true love bring these two together again in the end? Hmmm… what do you think?
Originally intended for the great Lon Chaney Sr. (and think what Lon could have done with the make-up!), Veidt does a terrific job as the permanently grinning man who never really speaks, but is SO expressive in his eyes and body. Using wires and over-sized fake dentures, Veidt looks like an evil, laughing serial killer, not the adored clown/Shakespearean actor portrayed in the movie. This was 1928 before the Hayes Code of decency went into effect and many things were considered shocking in this film; most jarring being Baklanova’s nudity and a scene where she lets the pervert Barkilphedro look at her naked crotch! Wow!
Director Paul Leni, meanwhile, was an exceptional director, dealing mostly with German Expressionism filmmaking; creative angles, light & shadows, and even tracking shots that you’d never thought were possible in 1928. Watching this movie, you can’t believe this was made back when talking pictures were considered a “fad”, it’s that good. The soundtrack occasionally annoys with it’s glaring sound effects (horns, whistles, etc), so be prepared, plus some of the acting is melodramatic at times and over-the-top, since that was the style at the time, but the story is perfectly eerie and passionate. You can watch this movie for free on YouTube (ignore the Spanish subtitles).