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Reviews For The Easily Distracted:

Title: Joker

Describe This Movie In One Full Metal Jacket  Quote:

ANIMAL MOTHER: You're a real comedian.
PRIVATE JOKER: Well, they call me the Joker.
ANIMAL MOTHER: Well I got a joke for you. I'm gonna tear you a new asshole.

Brief Plot Synopsis:
 We live in a society?

Rating Using Random Objects Related To The Film: 3 Conrad Veidts out of 5.

Tagline: "Put on a happy face."

Better Tagline: "Everybody loves a clown, so why don't you?"

Not So Brief Plot Synopsis: Part-time clown Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) has had a rough go of it for ... seemingly forever. He sees a social worker for his mental problems and lives with his mother (Frances Conroy) in a rundown apartment, but all Arthur really wants is to make it as a stand-up comic and maybe win the attention of his neighbor Sophie (Zazie Beetz). Unfortunately, Arthur is afflicted with a neurological condition that causes him to laugh hysterically under stress, this makes him an easy target for bullies and ridicule, until a cascading series of events finally brings the troubled man to a breaking point.

"Critical" Analysis:
 Movies don't exist in a vacuum, and the circumstances surrounding their production and release almost always lend context to the finished film. Having said that, your appreciation of Joker may depend on how well you're able to separate the movie from the maelstrom of hot takes that surrounds it.

Because without all that, Joker isn't a bad movie. Phoenix continues a string of powerful performances stretching back to (at least) 2012's The Master. In point of fact, the character of Arthur Fleck shares a number of similarities with Joe from You Were Never Really Here, down to the infirm mother and abusive childhood.

And director Todd Phillips has succeeded in emulating — if not outright aping — a Scorsesian vision of early '80s Gotham City (which bears an uncanny resemblance to pre-Giuliani New York City). Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy are the obvious inspirations (Robert De Niro even appears as "Murray Franklin," a Johnny Carson-esque late night host who gives Arthur his "big break"), but they're far from the only ones (think Fritz Lang's M and Paul Schrader's First Reformed).

In spite of his apparent disdain for the medium, Phillips's comic book influences are equally apparent. Arthur's stand-up failures recall one of the Joker's possible origins (from Alan Moore's The Killing Joke), while Franklin's talk show is inspired as much by the "David Endocrine Show" from Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns (including a "Dr. Ruth" appearance!) as it is KoC.

All of this on its own might be enough to recommend Joker. But that isn't how the world works, and while there might be an interesting (if overused) story to tell, Phillips isn't the guy to do it. He might have helped his cause if he'd steered clear of larger DCEU mythology, as was his early stated intention, but he can't help swan diving into that morass again (including a scene we've endured roughly dozen times before), to the movie's eventual detriment.

One could also argue that detailing the title character's origin so thoroughly dilutes his effectiveness as a villain. The Joker is compelling and terrifying because of how little we know about him, and because of the shadowy reflection he provides for Batman. It's one of the things that made Heath Ledger's take on the role so effective.

And if Phillips is imitating (fine: paying homage) to Scorsese, it's little more than a surface comparison. Joker isn't introspective enough to make us care about Arthur's dilemmas, and though Phillips and screenwriter Scott Silver are on the mark about society failing its mentally ill (Arthur's ultimate break from reality comes after Gotham City cuts social services and access to his meds), they also misinterpret the tragedy of Fleck's eventual transformation, instead portraying it as triumph.

Even then, it's hard to see the Joker being a source of inspiration to disgruntled white dudes, considering the movement which eventually springs up around him (precipitated by a clowned-up Arthur killing three finance bros in a weird inversion of Bernie Goetz shootings) basically boils down to "kill the rich." And if we know anything about angry white guys, they aren't going after people who look like them. Especially not rich ones.

Speaking of vacuums, Phillips made some comments earlier this week about the state of comedy that definitely didn't make him sound like an aggrieved, middled-aged white guy who's pissed off he can't make "ladyboy" jokes anymore. There's a scene when Arthur tells his mom he wants to be a stand-up, and she fires back with "Don't you have to be funny to be a comedian?" It's pretty rich meta-commentary coming from the director of Due Date, and it — along with Warner Bros. abrupt decision to cancel most of the film's press junkets — reveal more about the filmmakers's state of mind than Arthur Fleck's.

To sum up: Joker is a decent movie. It has its strengths: Phoenix's tour de force performance and Hildur Guðnadóttir's score among them. But for all that, it's not really worthy of all the hand-wringing it's inspired.
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Peter Vonder Haar writes movie reviews for the Houston Press and the occasional book. The first three novels in the "Clarke & Clarke Mysteries" - Lucky Town, Point Blank, and Empty Sky - are out now.
Contact: Pete Vonder Haar