Joker–No Laughing Matter

Joker the movie

Joker is a   devastating portrait of a rapid descent into mental illness. 

This Joker, nemesis to the comic book masked superhero Batman,  takes center stage with only a tangential reference to Batman and for good reason.   Now we see the masked Joker as few could have imagined. And it is no small feat to have a performance which overshadows the also remarkable previous Jokers played by Jack Nicholson, Danny DeVito and Heath Ledger.

In Joker a marginally employed and aspiring stand-up comedian, Arthur Fleck (played by the astonishing Joaquin Phoenix), has a series of menial gigs as a clown holding a banner declaring a store’s bankruptcy or performing in the cancer ward of a children’s hospital.  He is a disposable, invisible Gotham resident faithfully caring for his invalid mother with whom he shares a dreary low-rent apartment.

Bullied, brutally abused and cruelly mocked by almost everyone around him, Arthur Fleck devolves into the Joker as the demented, bipolar mask of comedy and tragedy. Not yet evil or vile, but more ignored and humiliated, his community fails him and his mental illness isolates him.

In close-up shots of his clown-face mask, this Joker is no clown, pulling down roughly on the corners of his face to force a grin, more grimace and silent scream than a smile. The viewer feels that Arthur Fleck is becoming ever more deeply damaged.

 Joaquin Phoenix gives such an unforgettable feral performance, this viewer was left wondering how the actor could maintain his sanity after this manic act as the Joker. We are taken on a journey to  see the dissolution of sanity under a psychological microscope. 

Joker with Joaquin Phoenix

Joaquin Phoenix’s exposed bones and emaciated frame are part of the Joker’s makeup. His physicality is a range of movements in madness, alternatingly unhinged and heartbreaking as he dances after each horrific act, struggling to communicate and connect until he surrenders to his insanity.

This is a  character-driven plot, intensely cerebral and at times subversive and disturbing.   This character study of the Joker will become a classic and a certain Academy Award nomination for Joaquin Phoenix.   A great joke is inseparable from its ability to subvert, to say the unsaid and the unspeakable.  Joker pushes all boundaries in its portrayal of a  deeply disturbing, subversive character and I cannot think of a film with which to compare it–a must-see!

“Her”—A Techno Romance

Her

“Her”, a wistful meditation on where we are and where we might be going in the not-too-distant future, is an inspired film by Spike Jonze who questions how technology will connect or disconnect us.

A lonely recently divorced man, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), develops an emotional connection  with his newly purchased operating system —OS Samantha (the dulcet, sexy voice of Scarlett Johansson).  While Twombly doesn’t understand why his ex-wife (Rooney Mara) fell out of love with him—she accuses him of being emotionally distant— OS Samantha seems to have been engineered to meet his every need.  Siri she is not.

Theodore Twombly who suggests “Your past is just a story you tell yourself”, tells himself a fantastical one about his computer. Set in a near-future Los Angeles, Twombly has developed a skill: writing eloquent imaginative letters for strangers — birthday wishes, love notes — but ill-equipped  to communicate with real people or even make eye contact (with the exception of one neighbor played by Amy Adams).  The strengths and failings of  relationships depend on the ability to talk about feelings and for Twombly the only safe environment appears to be with his computer.  He soon finds he is not alone in thinking that.  While she seems to fulfill his fantasy of a perfect relationship,  the more complicated she becomes, the more Twombly pulls away.  In this respect, the movie “Her” is like “Ruby Sparks”(see my review, November 11, 2013)—raising the question: If you could have your dream  of the perfect partner come true, would that bring you happiness?

One of the most provocative and original movies of 2013, “Her” plays with the future and the interface between humans and their machines as well as the problems and pitfalls of communicating feelings in any relationship. “Her” is part romantic comedy, part sci-fi with the brain teaser that falling in love in a cyber-relationship is not as far-fetched as it would have seemed even five years ago. Enjoy, laugh, and then think about how technology can both alleviate and increase a sense of loneliness!