Ridi, Pagliaccio. Opera fans will instantly recognize what I’m talking about. It’s a very famous aria from Ruggero Leoncavallo’s melodrama I Pagliacci, and it is sung by Canio, preparing to enter the stage as Pagliaccio, the happy clown, after finding out that his off-stage wife has cheated on him. He’s required to do his job, he’s expected to fake happiness and keep away the pain, so he tells himself “Laugh, Pagliaccio”. Leave your drama off the stage, and act.
It’s 1981. Arthur Fleck lives in Gotham City. He’s a loner, an outcast, a clown for hire, and a mommy’s boy. He has a mental illness that causes sudden fits of laughter, especially when under pressure. It has become such an issue that he always brings a card on him that says that his laughter is not a product of his emotions. His mother Penny (Frances Conroy) calls him Happy. “Your role in the world is to laugh and make people happy”, she says. His dream is to become a successful stand-up comedian and be a guest at Murray Franklin’s (Robert De Niro) late-night talk show, the most popular on tv. But it’s hard for Arthur to be happy when you have no real friends, live in a small and dirty apartment and barely get by being a clown. He finds comfort in his home and in his mom because the outside world is terribly mean to him: kids kick him down the street, his boss and colleagues make fun of him, and even strangers on the subway, children of the high society of Gotham City, drunk from a night out, humiliate him. For all his life, Arthur has endured this suffering, but he’s getting closer and closer to his breaking point.
The Joker is one of the most legendary villains of the 20th century. He first appeared on DC comics in 1940, and he’s always held a special place in the iconology of the comic world. It wasn’t only his disturbing look of an evil clown, it was the mystery behind the man that has always made him so eerily fascinating. Who is the Joker? Where does he come from? How did he become like this? These questions have always remained unanswered. Even more, Heath Ledger’s game-changing take on this criminal mastermind made fun of all the theories. First he got his scars out of sympathy for a non-existent wife, then he got them because his father carved them out of his face. Before Todd Phillips’ film, learning about the past of the Joker seemed like a chimera. That is why the project on the backstory of this obscure character sounded both exciting and daunting.
Filmmakers and producers were adamant that Joker wouldn’t be an ordinary comic book movie. They have always intended the film to be a character study, an origin story on one of DC Comics’ most popular characters. And the film does not betray that intention. Yes, it is set in Gotham City, but it’s not the Gotham City seen in the Batman movies. It is a 1970-1980 Scorsese-esque metropolis in desperate need of order that is only going to get more chaos. There is no Batman, and not even Bruce Wayne (except for a brief and eerie interaction with Arthur), while Thomas Wayne has one of the film’s pivotal roles. It is about the Joker, but it is not even really about the Joker. The film is about Arthur Fleck, and his transformation into the Joker.
I might as well say it straight away: Joaquin Phoenix is extraordinary as Fleck. In one of his most visceral performances, Phoenix’s Fleck is a vulnerable and sensitive man, burdened by the weight of expectations and crushed by his sense of disillusionment, unable to find his identity. He infuses humanity in Arthur Fleck, making him a heart-warming underachiever, a walking example of the underbelly of Gotham’s society. Criminalized for his mental illness and defenseless against social injustice, he lives in a constantly feverish state, where he imagines being a star on his favorite late night show, or getting a round of applause at a stand-up comedy night. His eyes speak louder than this misplaced words, his laughter has a layer of pain that has never been heard in the previous Jokers. Arthur Fleck is a social reject that unwittingly becomes a rebel, a leader of the ostracized. He doesn’t comprehend his role in the shocking changes taking place in Gotham City until he steps out of his own world with his devilish dance, and witnesses it with his own eyes. It is Phoenix’s explosive, vibrant and sinister portrayal of Fleck that anchors the film, and that might finally win him his first, hard-earned Oscar.
The biggest quality of Joker is that it sets up a credible comic book world that doesn’t feel far detached from the world we live in. Gotham City feels like New York City, Chicago, London or Paris. It is a dark world of crime and chaos, of corrupt politicians and disdain for the poorer and weaker. Helped by Hildur Guðnadóttir’s spellbinding score, Lawrence Sher’s immersive cinematography and a memorable soundtrack, Todd Phillips directs the film with surprising firm hand, focusing his attention on what makes his Joker so unique, so disturbing and so sinister, making him the prince of clowns in the circus of Gotham City.
The review is from the Venice Film Festival. Warner Bros will release Joker on October 4.