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‘Joker’ Proves the Power of Empathy

Todd Phillips turned a famous character into a voice for the forgotten and overlooked, and made an origin story that resonates with our current moment



funny thing happened to Arthur Fleck, aka Joker, en route to becoming the centerpiece of a cultural phenomenon that continues to strike a responsive note with global audiences: The character didn’t generate the mayhem pundits continually warned could be headed our way if we dared to venture into a multiplex to see “Joker.” In-stead, Arthur became a voice for the forgotten, the troubled and the downtrodden.

“Joker” conveys an idea, and boiled down to one word it is “compassion.” You might even say that compassion is the movie’s superpower.

Writer-director Todd Phillips says, “I love the complexity of Joker and felt his origin would be worth exploring on film, since nobody’s done that. Even in the canon, he has no formalized beginning. So Scott Silver and I wrote a version of a complex and complicated character and how he might evolve — and then devolve. That is what interested me — not a Joker story but the story of becoming Joker.

“‘Joker’ is the movie that touched the most electrifying chord with audiences.”
Owen Gleiberman

“For example,” he adds, “in the movie you see the difference in how kids and adults react to Arthur, because kids tend to see the world through no lens. They don’t see rich versus poor or understand a marginalized individual like adults do. They just see Arthur [the party clown] as a guy whose only intent is to make them smile. It’s not inherent [for adults]. We have to learn how to be unaccepting of others — and unfortunately, we usually do.”

Recalling his excitement about Phillips’ thoughts on the material, Bradley Cooper, one of the producers, described the movie’s bold approach: “Take prob-ably the most famous villain and say, ‘Okay, what if we humanize this person? Let’s see what could be possible causes for who he becomes, and where can we, as a community and a society, find our own way to see how this could happen and how this could be remedied?’ ”

And yet before the public even had the chance to see the film, there was widespread media speculation about its story and swirling questions about whether the movie would encourage violence.

Variety chief film critic Owen Gleiberman has acutely dissected the misunderstanding that surrounded the film’s debut, delving into why the empathetic approach to its antihero is actually the source of its connection to audiences. “As Arthur says, ‘Is it just me, or is it getting crazier out there?’ he writes. “As the basic security of the American middle class frays before our eyes, the primal anxiety is starting to tear at the fabric of people’s well-being.”

Todd Phillips on Directing – Own the 4K Ultra HD, Blu Ray & Digital Movie Now

In Gleiberman’s view, the movie’s role in awards season is not just one of contender but one of social indicator: “If “Joker” wins, it will play as a celebration of the rare power a film built around a comicbook scoundrel could summon in a year when it expressed the rage, alienation and insanity that so many are feeling.”

The ailing, angsty, late-’70s/early-’80s Gotham of Phillips’ “Joker” doesn’t look very dreamlike, as most movies born of this genre do.

In fact, the film more greatly resembles what we see in America today, where some are thriving but the poor and middle class are being squeezed to the point of despair. While op-ed pages issued cautions about “Joker” and its potential to provoke the darkest forces in our society, a few clearer-minded writers saw the film’s true intentions straight out of the gate. “Even after the early accusations that it was a film liable to incite violence proved unjust,” Gleiberman notes, “it was demonstrated beyond doubt that the movie spoke to humans of every gender, race and age group.

“In an alternate universe, Phillips’ slow-burn anti-comicbook spectacle would be the [Academy Award] frontrunner, and not just because it has the most nominations. It’s the movie that touched the most electrifying chord with audiences.”

Forbes magazine issued a think piece on Aug. 31, 2019 — the same day “Joker” premiered at the Venice Film Festival — noting presciently, “When you watch this film, I assure you you’re not going to be thinking Joker is glamorized or fetishized the way he’s been in most previous incarnations. This is one of the year’s best films and will be in the running for multiple Academy Awards.”

“What if we humanize this person? Let’s see what could be possible causes for who he becomes.”

Just a week later, that take on the film’s serious intent, its intensely relevant subject matter and its fearless accomplished filmmaking came to fruition, as “Joker” made history, winning Venice’s top prize, the Golden Lion.

Gleiberman’s own review from the festival was packed with ruminations on how and why the movie successfully engages its audience with a startling tour-de-force confrontation of both America’s very real social ills and how they figure into the personal torments of Arthur Fleck.

“There’s no denying we feel something for him — a twinge of sympathy, or at least understanding,” he writes.

Analyzing the character’s almost Dostoyevskian condition, he adds, “[Arthur’s] laughter is an act that parades itself as fakery. What it expresses isn’t glee; it expresses the fact that he feels nothing, that he’s dead inside. He’s a man on the edge of a nervous breakdown ... even as you’re gawking at his violence, you still feel his pain.” Over time, spurred in part by the reactions of filmgoers, more critics were taking a thoughtful look at “Joker,” and what they saw wasn’t a dangerous movie but a movie with a message that desperately needed to be received.

In October, for example, USA Today quoted a social worker who found Arthur’s roller-coaster ride of on-again, off-again medical and social assistance “accurate.” The social-health professional said, “[The film] depicted how one day you have a program and the next day you don’t. And you see how that impacts the people you serve. It’s enormously frustrating. We’re dealing with people’s lives.”

Then came the raves from reviewers, guilds and the Academy. “Joker,” which had started in the eye of a storm amid a media frenzy of fear, had become critically celebrated, embraced by audiences and honored with more BAFTA and Academy Award nominations than any other film in 2019.

Gandhi once said, “The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members.” The filmmakers of “Joker” have created a piece of art that is startling in both its cinematic élan and its compassionate portrait of society’s lost souls — the ones that we see around us, traumatized and dispossessed.