“No longer is he forced to be part of the scenery; he is the scenery, and such is the strenuous effort of Phoenix’s performance that it becomes exhausting to behold. Get a load of me, he seems to say, and the load is almost too much to bear.”
– Anthony Lane, The New Yorker
The general perception of clowns runs the gamut from freakish, to tragic, to malevolent and, ultimately, to homicidal. It is as if we instinctively distrust anything, or anyone, who makes such an aggressive attempt to be joyful. Pop culture gives clowns a bad rap. The most ironic thing about a clown is that clowns never seem to be happy.
One of the biggest Joker contentions is that it’s too full of itself, too self-important, trying too hard to be of import, to be relevant and in effect becoming a wannabe. Is it, though?
I disagree with naysayers who claim it’s a film meant to make the Joker sympathetic, to excuse his insanity, to present him as someone wronged by society. If anything, I admire Joaquin Phoenix’s deep dive into the the complete mental breakdown of a clown-for-hire. He knows this isn’t a character you’re going to ever like, and isn’t interested in being loved, or understood, or forgiven. He just is. His performance is a tour de force, and there is no wonder he’s being mentioned as a definite Oscar mention. It’s fearless, because there is absolutely no attempt on his part to gain the sympathy of the audience.
Isn’t that what viewers do? Consciously or unconsciously, because we see the movie mostly through its hero, or anti-hero’s, eyes, we are automatically predisposed to relate to its lead. Yes, Arthur Fleck’s life is hard. But so is everyone else’s, in the gritty Gotham of the early ’80s, with garbage lying uncollected on the streets, graffiti on the walls and giant rats everywhere. Yes, there is a scene where he gets beat up, and there is also a scene where he is told he wouldn’t have been if he hadn’t made stupid choices. But everyone makes stupid choices. It’s how we choose to live with them that matters. And sometimes, some people are just too broken to live with themselves.
As I mentioned, there is zero attempt to make Arthur Fleck relatable, which may (and has) enraged quite a few. I couldn’t like him, lord knows I tried, and ultimately, I think that was the point. Joker is the equivalent of two middle fingers thrown up at the viewer, an I-don’t-give-a-shit-if-you-don’t-like-me manifesto that flies in the face of the traditional Hollywood ending. You walk out of the theatre drained and numb, because that is what living life as Arthur Fleck is like. By the end of it you stop feeling, or even wanting to feel, because the sheer effort of being happy, of staying happy, in a world that feels like a nightmare is too much to bear.
This is not Venom, a movie that tried very hard to make Eddie Brock likeable enough for people to want to see sequels; Joker is a movie that doesn’t give a shit about what comes next. Which, come to think of it, is apt. It’s true to the form of its main character, and, incidentally, its director – Todd Phillips, the guy who gave us The Hangover Trilogy and one of my all-time favourite movies, Old School. All his films are nihilistic, saved only by the goofy charm of its leads.
“You know what I am?” asks Heath Ledger’s Joker, in the Christopher Nolan iteration, “I’m a dog chasing cars.” Perhaps this is what makes the Joker the undying, ever-popular foil to the moody, grim Batman we all know and love, and a character whose ability to chew scenery is Oscar-bait when done right. Batman cares too much. The Joker doesn’t give a shit. He never has, and he never will. Why should his movie do the same?