Joker director Todd Phillips says the film's story is rooted in real-world mental health issues. The DC Comics adaptation doesn't even open in theaters for another three weeks, and yet it's already one of the most polarizing movies of the year. That hasn't prevented Joker from taking home any awards though, as the film shocked many by winning the prestigious Golden Lion prize at the Venice Film Festival just over a week ago. The last two winners of the Golden Lion (The Shape of Water and Roma) went on to be nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars, which obviously bodes well for Joker's awards season prospects.
Most of the reasons Joker has been divisive so far are related to its script. Written by Phillips and Scott Silver (The Fighter), Joker tells the tale of Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a troubled wannabe standup comedian who is stuck in a dead-end job as a clown for hire by day. A lot of the criticisms raised so far argue that Joker is extremely problematic in the way it depicts Arthur's mental health problems and his descent into madness, as he gradually evolves into the Clown Prince of Crime. According to Phillips, though, Arthur's struggles are informed by actual mental health issues.
One of the symptoms of Arthur's mental health issues in Joker is his spontaneous laugh, which stems from a head trauma he suffered when he was younger, resulting in him developing a neurological condition known as pseudobulbar affect. Speaking at a Q&A after an early screening of Joker (which Screen Rant attended), Phillips explained that he and his team came up with this idea while doing research for the film:
We researched it, and we studied that. Quite frankly, that laugh could be [a symptom]. People are afflicted in different ways. Some people cry from this, and some people laugh. And it’s always at the wrong moment, and it’s really painful. What we discovered was, it happens from head trauma as a young person, or even older. And it happens from MS. We didn’t necessarily want to give Joker/Arthur MS, so we went with this head trauma thing.
The movie, in every way, tries to be grounded in reality as much as possible. I mean, it still has a foot in the comic book world, for sure. But we just kept thinking, “Let’s put everything through a realistic lens.” Why does he have a white face? Well, we’re going to drop him in acid. I don’t know how real that – while it’s amazing in the comic books, and Jack Nicholson and all that – it doesn’t feel very real that that would happen if you fell into a vat of acid. So, let’s come up with a realistic answer for everything. And that was one for the laugh. So, yeah, we researched it. Does that make sense?
Phillips has made it no secret that he and his collaborators drew additional inspiration from Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver and especially The King of Comedy, when it comes to their portrayal of Arthur's mental health problems in Joker. Some of the film's early negative reviews have argued that, even with the grounded explanation for much of Arthur's behavior (like his laugh), Joker lacks the social context that made Scorsese's classics so troubling, and goes for empty nihilism instead. The positive reviews, of course, argue the opposite and suggest that Joker is successful at critiquing society for the way its fails to show compassion to people with mental health problems. In the case of Joker, Arthur's sudden and uncontrollable laughter often inspires derision from those around him, and even gets him assaulted on certain occasions. At one point, Arthur writes about this in his notebook, saying "The worst part about having a mental illness is people expect you to behave as if you don’t".
It's little wonder Joker is controversial, in light of the larger ongoing discussion about the misconceptions that many people have about those with mental health issues, and how they are prejudiced against by society as a whole. It's a very important conversation too, so it's good that Phillips and his various Joker collaborators were aware of it while working on the project. At the same time, it's equally important that people be allowed to continue debating Joker's merits in this regard, including whether the film is ultimately responsible or not in its portrayal of Arthur's mental health problems. No doubt, there will be more fuel to add to the fire once Joker actually starts playing in theaters next month.
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