My good friend and award winning editor Barry Poltermann once told me a story about movie pitches in Hollywood. He told me that if you’re in a meeting with studio executives, and you’re describing your movie idea to them, if you sense that it is not going well and they’re not exactly liking your idea, at the end you say:
“And they’re giants.”
This might be an urban legend or something he just made up because it sounds good. But for some reason it stuck with me. A good plot twist is hard to come by.
I can imagine a similar studio pitch going something like this:
“This is a story about a man with massive mental health issues, who works as a clown. He gets beat up and feels like society is against him at every turn. Government assistance cuts off his meds and he obtains a firearm, then goes on a murderous spree. He commits a murder on national television and becomes a hero. It’s a satirical look at society and all of its ills told in a dark and metaphorical context.”
At this point I would assume the studio executives would be a little confused as to the money making viability of this idea. This twisted plot certainly wouldn’t strike one as Hollywood fare, at least on the surface. I can imagine the execs asking things like:
“Is this a Lars von Trier vehicle? Or maybe Michael Haneke? Is this a low budget indie film? Can any real viable names be attached to such a dark story? Is this straight to streaming? Feels more like art house.”
After their hesitation comes the plot twist.
“The main character is The Joker from the Batman comic books. This is his origin story.”
Did the pitch happen like this? I don’t know. But as I walked out of the theater after seeing The Joker, I couldn’t help but feel like I had been duped at least a little bit. It’s an art house film disguised as a superhero origin film. Or maybe it’s a superhero film disguised as an art house film. Or maybe it’s just a film that isn’t sure what it’s supposed to be and maybe that’s okay. But I’m not sure this movie ever gets made unless it has the comic book connection. It’s too dark and too cynical.
But hey the movie got made, so let’s set aside for a second that it’s a comic book film. I know that it’s a dramatic, well shot, well acted, character driven tale of how a man with mental health problems becomes a criminal, society fanning the flames of the evil that is inherent within him. It resonates in today’s world, sadly, and I really wish that it wasn’t a film about The Joker, I wish there was a character named Arthur Fleck (The Joker’s given name) and that I could have sympathy for his plight and feel the need to understand more fully his descent into evil. But at the end of the day, he’s a comic book character.
That said, the movie does do a nice job of illuminating society’s ills. We get a kick out of rolling camera on human curiosities (picture the American Idol guy who is an awful singer, or someone like Tommy Wiseau, whom Hollywood lampooned) propping them up at the expense of their own self worth. We love to laugh at their inadequacy, and this grates on the Joker — even though it gives him a temporary sense of importance. It’s scary how in the blink of an eye an individual can become marginalized, and get the urge to lash out.
The depiction of mental health is key in the film, and in a lot of ways it plays into the hands of pro gun advocates who say mental health is the problem, not guns. It’s chilling how The Joker comes into owning a gun, and we see how easy it can be. At first he doesn’t fully grasp the power of the gun; it isn’t until he fires the gun while he’s playing around with it in his living room that he realizes the scary power he wields.
The movie also does a fantastic job of depicting delusional thoughts, with The Joker’s fantasies seamlessly edited into the narrative. We, like him, are nor sure what’s real and what isn’t.
Joaquin Phoenix’s performance as The Joker is fantastic, but it feels more like Phoenix riffing on an idea than it does an actual directed performance; he’s crazy, and that’s about it. Phoenix does an incredible job at showing us, audibly, how close the sound of laughter is to the sound of crying.
But with all its finer points, it’s unfortunate that we’ve come to this point in a society where we need a comic book film to remind us how screwed up the world is. We need the story dressed up in something, The night is dark, and we all need a blankie. It’s like how Stephen Colbert can throw his serious political opinions around, but at the end of the day proclaim that he’s a comedian and not a real political analyst. And I can’t seem to shake that this “serious” film is really just a Batman supervillain origin story film.
There has been a bit of talk recently about comments made by Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese, who both feel that superhero films aren’t cinema. I tend to agree with them, and here is why: It’s not that comic book films aren’t extremely well made, or well acted. They are. Hero stories and the triumph over evil will never go away. I think what makes them less than cinema is that within the characters there is little mystery; they have been well documented for decades. And really the backbone of great cinema is in its characters, people over the course of two to three hours we live with, come to know, laugh and cry with, root for and against.
But everyone knows who the Joker and Batman is.
The fact is an origin story about a comic book supervillain comes with preconceived notions, the baggage that we carry having seen some or all of the other Batman films. This makes it difficult, at least for me, to see the character as anything other than a supervillain. So as we are asked to feel sympathy towards The Joker, that sympathy is fleeting, knowing all along that in the back of our minds that he becomes a criminal — and not a real world criminal — a criminal that is part of a comic book universe, which diminishes the innate gravity of his character.
Therein lies the catch-22 — make a movie like this, and call it The Joker, it makes millions. Make a movie like this, about a random guy and his descent into hell, it probably falls flat, back in that pitch meeting, never to be heard of or seen again.
Photos courtesy of Warner Bros.