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Does tragedy plus time equal comedy in “Joker?”

February 14 through 16, Union South Marquee, multiple showtimes, free. Info

It will be a real eye-opener thirty years from now to look back at our political zeitgeist and cultural artifacts through this current lens. What did we find offensive, profane, and/or sacred? Who did we deem worthy of praise and adulation, and who did we deem worthy of being “cancelled” as our culture has labeled it? For better or worse, we have decided to either shy away from or embrace certain topics as too delicate, and instead issue warnings of violence for those of us bold enough to sit in a theater to consume more controversy.

Despite forewarnings of copycat violence, Todd Phillips’ Joker (2019) raked in over one billion dollars, as armed security guards stood idly by at screenings across the country last October upon the film’s initial release. I personally did not hear of incidents at any of them, but what I do recall was a great swelling of emotion and empathy for a fundamentally broken Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) doing his best to function in a fundamentally broken society that has turned its back on any of those deemed different or less capable.

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Fleck suffers from a neurological condition called pseudobulbar affect (PBA) that causes him to laugh or cry uncontrollably when under extreme duress, so he must try to mimic controlled laughter in order to fit in socially with his peers. Every attempt he has made to connect or bring joy to the world as a professional clown is upended, until, like any human being, he reaches his breaking point. Joker, as Fleck asks to be called on a nightly talk show hosted by Murray Franklin (Robert DeNiro), soon realizes tragedy plus time will equal comedy.

Perhaps because of DeNiro’s presence, the film has drawn numerous comparisons to Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) and The King Of Comedy (1982), which is not inaccurate. What is most intriguing is how little we have gleaned about being civil to one another after the hateful screeds in some of Scorsese’s earlier works, like the aforementioned. We cannot continue to be surprised when the outgrowth of inhumane treatment results in violence and mayhem. If you’re itching to see a Joker performance that rivals Heath Ledger’s turn in The Dark Knight (2008), this is by far the definitive one.

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