Welcome to the JOE-DOWN, a back-and-forth movie review blog by two snarky newspapermen named Joe from Minnesota, Joe Froemming and Joe Brown. We will take turns selecting a movie — any movie we want — and review it here. For this installment, Froemming picked “Joker.”
The Movie: “Joker”
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz
Director: Todd Phillips
Plot Summary: (From IMDB) Joker centers around an origin of the iconic arch nemesis and is an original, standalone story not seen before on the big screen. Todd Phillips’ exploration of Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a man disregarded by society, is not only a gritty character study, but also a broader cautionary tale.
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 69 percent
Froemming: It’s October, so you know what that means! It’s Joe Brown’s favorite theme month with horror movies.
For the first instalment, I decided to go with the origin story of the Clown Prince of Crime: Travis Bickle — wait, no, I meant Joker, Batman’s arch nemesis and the one comic book character whose big draw is he does not have a real origin. Even in “The Killing Joke” (the closest the comics got) he admits as much, saying he prefers his origin as multiple choice.
And look, I know “Joker” isn’t a typical horror movie, I picked it because I wanted an excuse for us to watch a DC movie that wasn’t 100 percent horse(REDACTED). And I walked out of the theater thinking this movie is, in fact, a horror story. A horror story of a broken, demented man who just wants to make the world smile. And kill people. He really wants to kill people.
Brown, as I prepare to send in the clowns, why don’t you give us your first thoughts?
Brown: Honestly, this was the scariest movie I’ve seen this year involving a clown. Sorry Stephen King, giant spider-clown thing is stupid, not scary.
I was very intrigued with how they’d attack a Joker origin story and it does follow one trait that is constant for the character: Joker is not a reliable narrator.
Frankly, this kind of origin story is what I want to see. At this point, I’m sick of the Spider-Man origin story and as for Batman, I may as well be Joe Chill with how many times I’ve seen Bruce Wayne’s bourgeois parents get gunned down in Crime Alley.
We’ll get to what we think of “Joker,” but I’m sure Froemming and I can agree on one thing: This is an uncomfortable watch. Fascinating, but uncomfortable.
While I put on my face paint, get us started, Froemming.
WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD
Froemming: We start off with our hero (?) Arthur Fleck, which I hope isn’t a joke about Ben Affleck, but given this movie was made by the guy who gave us the “Hangover” trilogy, I am not ruling it out.
Brown: He’s also the guy who’s here for the gang bang from “Old School.”
Froemming: Arthur lives in the poor area of Gotham. He is a clown for hire, with mental issues and lives with his mother, so basically Norman Bates who prefers Bozo the Clown cosplay over dressing in his mother’s nightgowns.
We first meet Arthur as he is swinging a sign for a business that has gone belly up and he is mugged by a bunch of street toughs — you know, 14-year-olds. They break his sign and kick him until the fun wears down, leaving him broken and bruised.
God I love comedies.
Brown: It’s the second most tragically hilarious robbery since Lloyd Christmas was robbed by a sweet old lady on a motorized cart.
Yeah, inner-city Gotham is a dump. The streets are packed. It looks like we’re outside porno theaters all the time. You hear exposition radio reports about how the streets are filled with trash due to a strike.
It’s a tough place for a shy man with a neurological disorder that makes him laugh spontaneously. So, one of Arthur’s co-workers loans him a gun because he was attacked by the devil’s minions from “Dogma.”
Froemming: Now, we learn early on that Arthur hides behind a facade. We see this when he is at his social worker’s office and she asks him to read from his journal: A journal filled with cutout pornogaphy, drawings of mutilation and the scrawlings of a madman (and the spelling of Charlie Kelly from “It’s Always Sunny” or Trump supporters on Facebook comment sections).
Brown: I’m glad you brought up the journal. I know the easy comparison for Phoenix’s Joker is Travis Bickle from “Taxi Driver,” and it’s not wrong. But between his creepy porno mutilation journal, the shy disposition and the random dancing, I saw a lot of Buffalo Bill from “The Silence of the Lambs.”
Too bad “Goodbye Horses” didn’t come out in the time this movie takes place.
Froemming: There have been odd criticisms of this movie which I think are based on the fact some people don’t understand what an unreliable narrator is: This is all from Arthur’s POV, we get this very early on when he is watching “The Murray Franklin Show” and puts himself in the actual audience instead of watching it in his crappy apartment with his mom (I wonder if they sleep ass-to-ass like Frank and Charlie?).
So, just to get this out of the way:
- I don’t think the Wall Street Bros actually sing “Send in the Clowns” to him on the subway, he just killed them because he was hallucinating that.
- There are parts I am not even sure actually happen: It seems too convenient to set up the Crime Alley murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents at the end. Hell, this could all be in his head, I haven’t any idea.
Brown: It’s open to interpretation, which is done really well in this movie. As far as some of the stuff in his head, the obvious ones are “The Murray Franklin Show” one and the fantasy about dating the neighbor Sophie, whom he meets in the elevator at this early point of the movie as well.
As for all the things later in the movie, there’s a strong reason for why everything gets escalated: The state’s funding for social programs is cut and Arthur, who is legit mentally ill, isn’t getting medicated anymore. This is a dude with at least seven prescriptions.
So, if you take this movie at face value, it’s the origin of the Joker we all know. Or, it’s the ramblings and daydreams of a psycho off his meds who may not actually be the Joker but a man in a power fantasy. Hell, in that train of thought, you could argue that Joker is an idea and anyone can become a Joker when they’re pushed too far, hence the riots at the end.
Yeah, I just went all over the map and spoiled a lot of (REDACTED), but the fact this movie has me thinking like this is what makes it so fascinating.
Froemming: It is kind of the flip side of the coin of Nolan’s Batman movies in which Batman is a symbol and an idea that anyone could become.
In “The Killing Joke,” Joker says all it takes is one bad day to cause someone to become like him. Here, it is about three to four decades of trauma, physical and (alluded) sexual abuse, poverty, living with a crazy person and whatnot to bring someone to this state, which honestly seems more realistic. So (REDACTED) you, Alan Moore!
Brown: There’s a “Killing Joke” reference in it, though. When Arthur breaks into Sophie’s apartment later, and we find out that he was fantasizing about dating her, Arthur says he’s there because he’s having “a bad day.” And it’s presumed he kills her when you hear sirens and see red-and-blue flashes in the window. All in the same day Arthur killed his mom.
Froemming: Well, before we go full-on homicidal Arthur, we start with meek and scared Arthur, who is on a lot of meds and should probably be under 24-hour care. And the backdrop is Gotham is about to boil over with all sorts of tensions: Economic being the big one, again a concept that was used in the Nolan Batman movies. Except here it isn’t the good-time fun of Bane breaking Batman’s spine, it is Arthur accidentally causing a revolution of misplaced rage that has seemed to pissed off liberal and conservative movie reviewers alike. Probably because they see themselves being portrayed as the mob of clowns burning the city.
Anywho, Arthur takes that gun his clown buddy gave him and accidentally drops it while entertaining sick children at the hospital.
Arthur should have got in touch with the NRA on being fired for that. I am sure they would have backed his pro-bringing-a-gun-to-a-children’s-hospital point of view.
Brown: All in all, I prefer Arthur’s clown-with-a-gun routine at a hospital over Patch Adams. At least Arthur understands the value of medication instead of thinking laughing is more effective than modern medicine.
So yeah, Arthur gets fired for having a gun. And on the subway ride home, he sees a woman being harrassed by three chuds. Because Arthur is mentally ill, he starts laughing at this harassment, which causes these duds to start harassing him and beating him up.
It’s here when Arthur becomes Charles Bronson in “Death Wish.” He guns two of them down and then hunts the final one down and executes him. All while dressed as a clown.
Froemming: Well, to be fair…
Arthur, having three dead bodies linked to him, and covered in blood, flees the subway and heads to Sophie’s apartment, where he romantically kisses her and I realized at that point he was hallucinating this. Because Arthur is a creepy guy who stalks her and that is not an endearing thing to do.
Brown: Where does that rank in the JOE-DOWN worst way to meet women? In front of or behind threatening to drop yourself from a Ferris Wheel a la “The Notebook?”
Froemming: I feel stalking someone is way creepier than threatening suicide to get a date. The latter the woman still has the option to say “no.” Or the option to even know it is happening.
To make matters worse, the subway killings have sparked a revolution in which the poor are now wanting to fight the upper crust of Gotham, and Thomas Wayne pulls a Hillary “deplorables” gaffe when he calls the protesters and the murderer “clowns.”
Brown: What did you think of this portrayal of Thomas Wayne? In so many Batman movies, he’s viewed as this kind-hearted philanthropist who would nearly bankrupt Wayne Enterprises to lift Gotham. Here, while the intention is close to the same, it isn’t done with the empathy that we’ve seen in previous iterations.
Just for being different, I was a fan.
Froemming: I liked it, but we have to remember we are seeing Thomas here through the POV of Arthur. He sees Wayne as the problem, or part of it, while Thomas (vainly) thinks he can save the city, like his idiot kid will try to do decades later, but dressed in a rubber suit rather than holding public office. And because our hero’s journey is from the villain, it skews this. We think Thomas is a dick to Arthur later, but if you think about it, Arthur shows up, harrasses his kid, is the son of a mentally ill former employee. I’d punch the guy in the nose too if he was bugging me while I was trying to pee.
So now we have the city tension growing with headlines about the killer clown, and Arthur no longer can get his medication, thanks to Obamacare or something. So he starts slowly going off the rails more and more.
Thanks a lot, Obama.
Brown: Hey, that Republican healthcare alternative will fix that problem for Arthur.
Froemming: Well, in a sense the do-nothing GOP plan did get Arthur into the hospital at the end.
Brown: So some context: Arthur tries to meet with Thomas Wayne and happens to run into Bruce because he finds out from one of his mom’s letters to Thomas that Arthur’s dad is Thomas Wayne, according to mom.
When Arthur does meet Thomas, Mr. Wayne tells Arthur his mom is mentally ill and he was adopted.
Isn’t debate over a child’s origin a part of what allegedly put Ted Bundy over the edge? Something that just popped in my head while thinking of this.
This leads Arthur to go to Gotham Hospital to find his mom’s medical records and finds out about his mom being committed. Not… not a great way to find out something like this.
Something we haven’t addressed that is also a sub-plot of the movie: Arthur’s standup routine.
We see Arthur try to get his comedy career off the ground in an open mike that does not go well whatsoever. People in the crowd can see his Buffalo Bill notebook, he’s laughing uncontrollably and he’s not at all funny (unless you take Arthur’s fantasy sequences seriously). And this routine is taped and sent to Murray Franklin, who ridicules the clip on his “Tonight Show”-esque talk show.
So great, even Arthur’s role model thinks he’s a loser.
Froemming: The standup scenes were interesting in that when you see Arthur’s notes, they are not jokes but observations on how people act and react. Sociopaths mimic how normal people act, which is something I learned from a book on Ted Bundy.
So, when it is his time to tell jokes, he has no idea what he is doing. But, I will say this, I laughed at his set more than I have ever laughed at anything Jay Leno has ever said. Because Leno sucks.
Brown: #TeamCoco. Always and forever.
Froemming: Also, is Arthur basically the first viral video star with that? In 1981, video cameras were really expensive, so if they wasted money filming him bomb onstage at some crappy Gotham comedy club, you know that clip will be used every night.
Also, I am siding with Arthur here. No need for Murray to punch down on someone. Especially a guy who is, you know, obviously not well what with the murder-porn journal he has with him on stage and all.
Brown: But hey, the popularity of the clip leads to “The Murray Franklin” show booking Arthur to come on the show. Not for what Arthur had hoped but hey, he made it, right?
Can we go ahead and say that Arthur is the sinister Forrest Gump? Dude just stumbles his way into becoming an icon. Kills three people in a subway, suddenly Arthur’s a symbol. Fails at comedy, but gets put on a hit TV show. Thanks to the riots outside, Arthur gets no resistance from security when he breaks into the banquet to meet with Thomas Wayne.
Like Gump, dude is failing his way to the top. Except he’s got a lot of blood on his footprints.
Froemming: Arthur also finds the journalism of Gotham was weirdly obsessed with reporting on the abuse he suffered as a child, what with the MULTIPLE headlines about him being tied to a radiator as a kid and being beaten and God knows what else as his mother watched. Now, I have been in the news business a while now, and while some stories do get to the gross, I don’t see why his case would be in the papers, since his mother is mentally ill and he was a minor.
Brown: If it went to trial, I could see some of this stuff coming to light. But Arthur wouldn’t be mentioned by name in all likelihood.
Also, speaking of the newspapers, you look at some of the headlines like “KILL THE RICH,” that adds to the idea that this is an elaborate fantasy in Arthur’s head.
This video does a good job of selling the idea that all this is in Arthur’s head.
Also, because that kind of headline makes me think of Motorhead and because any review can use some Motorhead…
Froemming: Like “American Psycho,” it is ambiguous which is one of the reasons I really enjoyed this movie. But it is not like economic and race relations have never caused riots in the past, so this all could very well be happening.
Anyway, Arthur is now pissed about learning about his childhood, so maybe the fog of psychosis helped him here by blocking all of that out for so many years. But still, he decides to smother his mom in her hospital room because, well, he is a crazy person and needs very little motivation to murder people. In fact, he says to a few people he either feels nothing about it. Or he even feels good about harming others.
Brown: The way Arthur kills Randall, the co-worker who gave him the gun is quite troubling. And then the movie does a good job with the dark comedy of having Gary, who is a midget, stay alive and unable to leave the apartment because he’s too short to move the chain lock.
It’s here I should mention that my mom came with me to watch this.
“Joker”: a family picture!
Froemming: Arthur spares him because he was the only one who was nice to him at work. We should note that he kills Randall as he is finally transforming into the green-haired clown we know so well. And we only get the actual Joker for maybe the last 30 minutes of the movie. I’m not complaining, I like how it paced that out so we get Arthur’s demented journey to his true calling.
And since we are here, where does this Joker rank for you from Cesar Romero to Phoenix?
- There was no other on-screen Joker, so it ends here.
Brown: Romero (who paints over their mustache? Only a true madman); Ledger; Phoenix; Nicholson; Mark Hamill; Zach Galifianakis in “The Lego Batman Movie” and Jaret Leto in a pit filled with spikes like the original “Mortal Kombat.”
Froemming: Arthur’s transformation is now complete. He is his true self now, painted up and dressed all dapper about to go on national TV.
Brown: First, when Joker is fully realized, best use of Gary Glitter’s “Rock and Roll Part 2.”
Second point: How many college douchebags will dress like this Joker on Halloween?
Froemming: We were in college when the “Dark Knight” came out and we were both at the bars that Halloween night. We know the answer to that already. Too (REDACTED) many.
But while busting a move on the steps like Elaine Benes, he is being followed by two cops who we think are after him for those subway killings. Or maybe the murder of his mother. Or harassing Bruce Wayne. Arthur has done a lot, so it could be any of those things. Also, I loved the contrast of the beginning of the movie where his climbing up the stairs is dark and gritty and he is miserable and him dancing down the stairs dressed as Joker is all sunny and fun.
Brown: I was laughing internally every single time I see Arthur/Joker running in this movie. He’s so uncoordinated and awkward.
This chase between the cops and Arthur end up in the subway, which is full of clowns ready to protest in Gotham. Arthur blends in and the clowns end up swarming and injuring the two detectives, letting Arthur get to “The Murray Franklin Show” unmolested.
When he gets to the studio, Murray’s assistant, Gene (played by Mr. Sam Sylvia himself, Marc Maron), thinks it’s in poor taste for Arthur to go out on stage in the clown getup. Murray thinks it’ll bring some levity because he’s an idiot.
And it’s here where Arthur fully adopts the moniker “Joker” because that’s what Murray referred to him as in the previous show.
Froemming: Anyone who has read “The Dark Knight Returns” pretty much knew what was going to happen next: Joker is going to kill people on TV. Sure, they tried to bait-and-switch us because it seemed like he was going to suicide on TV, but I didn’t fall for it. It wouldn’t make sense for him to go in that direction now he knows who he truly is: An ambiguous sociopath who dresses like a clown.
So he goes on TV all right, and Murray asks him to tell a joke or something, because he is being creepy and causing a lot of dead air for the show. So Joker pulls out the old porn-murder journal and proceeds to tell a yarn about dead kids!
Maybe it is just too high-brow for the crowd?
Brown: We’re dealing with a late-night talk show crowd here. They’re like Hank Hill.
It’s here where Arthur admits that he was the subway clown killer and begins a diatribe about how society leaves people like him to rot while Thomas Wayne makes false promises about saving Gotham and people like Murray mock and ridicule people like Arthur.
And like you said, Froemming, it all culminates in Arthur shooting Murray in the head on live television.
And then, that leads to the funniest part of the movie. “Joker” uses “The Simpsons” technical difficulty gag, complete with “Spanish Flea.”
I audibly chuckled at this in the theater. Sorry for seeming like a psycho, Quarry Cinema in Cold Spring, Minnesota.
Froemming: You know, we just started doing that gag on here, and now I feel we need to stop for a year or so. If there is a major complaint I have at Todd Phillips with this, it is we have to stop doing that bit now.
Well, they may have pulled the plug, but Joker is everywhere now. And the chaos his TV stunt brings is burning Gotham to the ground. Clowns to the left of people, jokers to the right, Gotham is stuck in the middle of a horrible Steeler’s Wheel reference.
Froemming: I regret nothing.
And Joker is being taken away by the police as everything burns. And if there was one thing I never needed to see in a movie ever again, it is Thomas and Martha Wayne being gunned down in Crime Alley. It was the only moment I truly rolled my eyes in the theater. We knew it was coming when they left the theater and that clown followed them. WE DO NOT NEED TO BE SPOONFED THE MOST ICONIC THING ABOUT BATMAN’S ORIGIN!
Now, an ambulance crashes into the cop car carrying Joker and he is dragged out and put in a Jesus Christ Pose on top of the crushed vehicle, only to awaken and dance in the middle of the chaos, a pretty solid metaphor of what the Joker represents.
Brown: It’s the second most terrifying example of someone dancing in the street.
At this point, we hear Arthur chuckling to himself in a hospital, being interviewed by a woman similar to who he talked to earlier in the movie. He says he’s chuckling about a joke that’ll stay between Arthur and “him.”
Then it cuts to Bruce Wayne and his dead parents. Dark. Very dark, movie.
As he leaves the room, Arthur has bloody footprints and eventually is being chased by an orderly as the closing credits come in.
As we move to recommendations, I need just one more musical number to leave this review on. Hopefully they use this for the Joker Comeback Special.
Froemming: I will do a deeper “Simpsons” cut for my musical send-off.
WOULD YOU RECOMMEND?
Froemming: Yes, while being pretty derivative of Scorcese’s 1970s films in style, I found it fascinating. Phoenix was phenomenal as the Joker. I say check it out.
Brown: Yes. Phoenix is mesmerizing in this movie. Again, it’s uncomfortable, much like a ‘70s exploitation movie, but it is a fascinating watch.