It’s Getting Crazier Out There: Watching Joker While the World Crumbles

I probably wasn’t supposed to laugh this much while watching JOKER.

It’s not a very funny movie. Matter of fact, it’s damn bleak. The entire onscreen world is cast in a muted green-and-red neon glow that’s somehow both realistically ugly and beautifully mournful. Imagine New York of the early 80s, the streets piled and reeking in the midst of a garbage strike. No one is safe from being mugged or murdered for the few dollars in their pockets. Healthcare has been cut and the mentally ill are balancing on the knife’s edge of sanity. We’ve seen Gotham through many different eyes, but I’m not sure we’ve ever seen it in quite this light.

Arthur Fleck is a sad and scrawny man-child, barely holding down his pathetic job as a rent-a-clown. He stands outside local stores, a smile painted on his face, twirling a going-out-of-business sign. There’s obviously something wrong with him. With his fingers he stretches his mouth into a reluctant smile, frequently erupting into bouts of desperate maniacal laughter. That laughter erupts when a woman scolds him on a crowded city bus for trying to make her child smile. He hands her a laminated card explaining that he has a condition called psuedobulbar. Though it’s not explained in the movie, it’s a condition resulting from traumatic brain injury. Like when someone has been terribly abused or beaten.

Each day, Arthur works his hopeless job and then comes home to his ailing mother. Each day, checking the mail for letters that never come. Each day, making sure that she eats, then watching the Murray Franklin Show in their crumbling tenement apartment. Each night, Murray is bathed in the bright lights of showbiz, making everyone laugh and smile. Arthur sees himself in the audience and laughs his unmistakable laugh. This prompts Murray to call him out. Though the talk-show host’s purpose is obviously to make fun of him, Arthur explains, “My mother always tells me to smile and put on a happy face. She told me I have a purpose to bring laughter and joy to the world.”

Obviously, that’s not what happens.

Everyone has their favorite Joker, and every actor who’s portrayed him has brought something different to the role. Some folks swear that Heath Ledger is the definitive version, while others insist that no one will ever top Jack Nicholson. Some prefer the demented comic-book cackling of Mark Hamill, or maybe even the guy from Gotham who was-but-wasn’t the Joker. Some still say it will always be Caesar Romero. Almost no one, by the way, says Jared Leto had the best take on the Clown Prince, though I still give him props for originality.  

I’ve always been more of a Marvel kind of guy, but the Joker is my favorite villain of all time, in all the forms he’s taken. It’s his randomness, maybe, or that he’s a much-needed agent of chaos. There’s an appealing freedom in being batshit insane, or at least the Joker makes it look like there is. It’s been decades since I stopped collecting comics, but I’ve still got copies of Killing Joke and Arkham Asylum. My birthday is Halloween, and I’m a weirdo, so it’s kinda sacred to me. I’ve spent it dressed up as the Joker on at least three occasions. I mean, the guy is an odd kind of hero for me.

But this isn’t a Joker that we’ve ever seen before.

I went to the theater alone this morning. My relationship of fifteen years, the life I’ve lived and imagined would never change, is coming to an end. I’m standing at the edge of my fiftieth birthday and everything is in flux. There’s as much fear as there is hope right now, and sometimes I feel like I must be losing my grip. One of the constants of domestic life has been our Saturday morning movies. The local theater is possibly, no joke, one of the cheapest in the entire state. My girlfriend, stepdaughter, and I have been getting tickets, popcorn, and beverages for about twenty dollars for years now. We’ve seen a lotta movies as a family.

So, when I walked up to the box office and said, “One for Joker, please,” I felt like some kinda creepy lone gunman. I chose a seat further away from all the happy couples and families, hoping to seem less obvious. Of course, it only enhanced the fact that I was alone. Slumped down in the seat before the movie, I scrolled through my phone and quietly chomped my popcorn, hoping no one thought I was a psycho. 

Finally, mercifully, the lights went down.

I’m not sure what most folks expected when they walked into this movie. It seems pretty obvious from the trailers what we were getting, that this wasn’t going to be a bombastic crowd-pleaser. The clips of Joachim Phoenix running through those filthy streets, or Robert DeNiro playing to a studio audience, just screamed Martin Scorsese. Matter of fact, he was briefly attached as a producer for the movie before he moved on to his own projects. The ghost of his early movies is nonetheless in Joker‘s DNA. Arthur Fleck is nothing if not a Scorsese character transplanted into a pseudo comic book movie, a kind of Taxi Driver meets King of Comedy in the land of Logan. Anyone who’s even glanced at an article about the movie already knows this.

But to actually see it up there on the screen, by yourself in a crowded theater . . .

Phoenix is a weird little dude anyway. There’s something not right about his voice sometimes, and something just off enough about his face to keep him from being the classically handsome leading man that studios want him to be. These aren’t bad things, though. These are the kinds of things that tend to add an odd nuance to everyone he portrays on the screen. He lost a shit-ton of weight to play Arthur, then does these weird contortionist kinda things with his body.

There’s this scene where his boss is lecturing him about a lost sign (the sign which had been taken from him and then smashed over his head, leaving him bloody and defeated in the street). The whole time he’s taking more shit, the camera stays on Phoenix’ face. I’m not sure how he does it, but he manages to look increasingly more insane with each second. It’s the kind of subtle transformation that not just anyone could pull off. Later, with his saggy tighty-whiteys as he does a maniacal dance around the living room, Arthur is just as freaky as he is sympathetic.

Maybe that’s why I identified so much with him, slumped down in my seat, watching wide-eyed without anyone else to worry about.

The world Arthur lives in has helped to create him. It’s a world that exists even more now than it did in the 80s, where those at the top do nothing for those at the bottom. It’s a world where people like Arthur are the victim of budget cuts, no longer able to get the therapy or the medications they need. He’s not the only one balancing on the edge of chaos, the entire world is. Ostracized, marginalized, he’s just another example of the systemic ills of society, a world in which victims easily become villains. Yet, the way he’s written and the way that Phoenix plays him, it’s never a case of blaming everyone else for what he becomes. The world of the movie, like the real world, is a much more complicated place.

And, goddamn, it’s heartbreaking.

But, if you really lose yourself in this world, in the way Arthur is in his own deluded mind, there’s a twisted kind of hope. Toward the beginning of the film, before he loses his meds, he asks his disinterested therapist, “Is it just me, or is it getting crazier out there?” About an hour later, he says, “I used to think my life was a tragedy, but now I know it’s a fucking comedy.” Of course, he’s snuffing out someone’s life under a pillow as he says it, on the road to utter madness by then.

But sometimes you’ve gotta take the good with the bad.

Yeah, the Joker has always been the bad guy, and that doesn’t ultimately change in this movie. For all the concern that this flick would ruin his mysterious origins, it actually gives his story yet another dizzying spin. It’s even possible to reach the end of Joker and not even be convinced that Arthur actually was the Joker. There’s a gorgeous ambiguity to the whole thing, even when it went places I knew it would go before I walked into the theater.

I laughed a lot too, and I can guarantee there’s nothing funny in this movie. At least not for most people. There was that scene where Arthur is outside the hospital. The cops are questioning him about a subway shooting, but he’s too distraught over his mother, possibly dying upstairs. He turns to dramatically race off . . . and smashes right into the sliding glass door. One of the cops points out what the sign above the door says: Exit Only. Not sure if it was meant to make anyone laugh, at least not that much, but I did. Hard. Matter of fact, I was the only one in the theater who did. This happened more than once.

But I just got the guy, you know? He wasn’t necessarily right, but he wasn’t exactly wrong either. He was fucked-up and sad, and, even if I could neither condone or condemn him, I sure as hell could understand him. This world can make us all a little bit crazy. 

And there was that lady in Walmart afterward.

I was still pondering the movie, still under a kind of spell, standing in line to use the self-checkout register. She was standing behind me, a bit off to the side. She was well-dressed and antsy. Someone took their receipt and started to walk away. Before I could even move, the lady bolted past me, as if her time, her needs, were more important than mine or anyone else’s. I could have said something rude, or even just let it go, but the Joker was still in my head.

Without even thinking about it, I unleashed a loud and cackling peal of laughter, just like Arthur Fleck did in the movie. It was weird, and maybe a bit unsettling, even to me. But I didn’t care. Everyone around me turned to look, and so did the lady. She actually stopped for a moment, and peered at me like I was a crazy motherfucker who was about to take her out. It took a moment for me to feel bad, and not all that bad even then. Part of me thought, maybe that’s what it takes for people to pay attention in this world.

And I thought of something else Fleck told his therapist, just before his world crashed: “For my whole life, I didn’t even know if I really existed . . . but I do. And people are starting to notice.”    

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