“Joker” fails as social commentary, but succeeds as an exercise in empathy

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Arthur Fleck is not your typical comic book protagonist. His traumatic backstory does not feel dark and haunted as, say Batman’s. Rather than being a character asking for sympathy, he becomes something pitiful, a pathetic figure that forces an audience to respond with empathy. It is this idea that Todd Phillips’s “Joker” plays with: the idea of empathy and sympathy colliding. Where sympathy asks us to side with a character, empathy simply asks us to identify with them. The result is something terrifying – – if we can see ourselves in a psychopathic mass murderer, what exactly does that say about us?

Phillips’ film, more than anything, is an exercise in empathy. It takes a difficult character and forces us into his shoes, thereby giving voice to all those affected by mental illness. Arthur is not a well man. He is forced to take seven different medications and has a specific condition that forces him to laugh uncontrollably. It is this aspect that makes Joaquin Phoenix’s take on the character so compelling. In the past, the “Joker laugh” has always represented a certain imbalance of power. It is a chilling, mocking laugh, one that is meant to convey a sense that the character knows something we do not. In” Joker,” it instead comes from a deep well of pain. It is not the result of a man who is above the rest. It instead feels more like a coping mechanism.

The Joker has always reveled in his mystery. Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” emphasized this aspect to terrifying effect, turning the character into more of a symbol of chaos and destruction rather than a real human being. This idea is completely eschewed in “Joker.” Instead, by the end of the film, we understand Arthur inside out. We know his backstory, what makes him tick, how he behaves, and his hopes and dreams. What makes “Joker” stand apart from other comic book movies is just how character-centric it really is. It is a brave move to turn a film about such a chaotic creature into a slow burn, becoming more of a character drama that discards the typical thrills that come with the genre.

When the film moves away from Arthur’s inner state it falters. Phillips tries to use the character as a way of making a macro point about society at large and it rarely works. When Joker starts committing his crimes, he becomes less of a character and more of a symbol for the oppressed people of Gotham. However, like the titular character, these societal points are rarely focused. Instead, they seem to swing wildly, rarely coming in contact with something concrete. It makes the film feel a bit disingenuous and unfocused, an unfortunate aspect that detracts from the otherwise very specific character study at play. This is especially evident in its epilogue, where we jump away from the character’s psyche to see the effect that he has had on the city at large. It’s less compelling because Arthur is such a fascinating character and any story beat that doesn’t deal with him specifically feels less interesting. The majority of “Joker” still stands as a character study, which is why I would say it is still worth seeing.  Phillips displays a surprisingly sure hand as a director (I say this knowing that his previous filmography features often stupid comedies like “The Hangover” and “Road Trip”). He pulls liberally from 1970’s crime movies such as “Taxi Driver,” “The King of Comedy,” and “Network.” Some may say that the film may feel like a bit of a ripoff of those films but, in my humble opinion, I feel like it is able to stand on its own as an original work of art. The cinematography and production design is aces as well. It is able to conjure up an image of Gotham City that has not felt this tangible since the Christopher Nolan Batman trilogy. You can practically smell the garbage and gunk from the streets in a way that reflects not only a growing inner turmoil, but the cynical view that Arthur holds.

There is a certain scene that really stuck in my mind long after the credits have rolled. In this moment, Arthur is watching a stand-up routine. He laughs, but at all the wrong moments as he jots down notes in his pornography plastered notebook. More than anything else in the movie, it is a perfect representation of who the man is. He is out of place and out of synch with the rest of the world. But, no matter what, he always tries to smile and put on a happy face. Perhaps that is what proves to be his undoing. He never accepts his misery as being equally valid as happiness. And it is that sense of denial that pushes him over the edge. Arthur may have a vulnerable psyche, but it is the world around him that enforces that very denial. If “Joker” is able to achieve any level of social commentary, it could very well be with that idea.

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