Directed by Todd Phillips – starring Joaquin Phoenix and Robert de Niro (running time: 2 hrs 2 mins)

Taste is an interesting thing and, as lead protagonist – clown character Arthur Fleck, played by Joaquin Phoenix, attests to in the latest Todd Phillips feature film effort: “comedy is subjective”.

I saw this movie on Saturday night past with my wife at the Labia Theatre in Cape Town.

We were late and there were not many seats remaining, so we had to separate as sitting at a right angle in an aisle seat two rows away from the front was just not doing my law-desk serious injury of a resoundingly stiff neck any great favours.

So, I sat towards the back of the cinema, and let the story unfold.

I had read many mixed reviews about the movie – the UK lefty newspaper, The Guardian, kind of slated it; it was reported in another article that large numbers of cinemagoers, in Huntington beach, California USA had left the cinema moaning about excessive violence; it was said in another article to be the most disappointing movie of the year.

So, where did all this leave a South African audience – in a society that is also plagued by violence, which is now spilling over into upmarket areas?

First-up, this is a film – an artistic effort and it is not to be judged on any other basis. If it moves you – as a cinemagoer – then director Todd Phillips has succeeded in his job.

I had also watched various film-interpretation debates on YouTube about which part(s) of the movie existed only in the lead character’s unhinged mind, or whether any of it ever really happened at all. Did it really matter in terms of content I asked myself – was it even necessary to dissect the film to such a degree?

So, like eating at a new restaurant, or reading a new book, or meeting a new person for the very first time, or even sitting down with a new unknown client, I simply ignored all the hype and let the story unfold – and in the most literal way.

Arthur Fleck is a failed clown and wannabe stand-up comedian who lives with his mother in a ratty apartment in downtown Gotham City (a fictitious DC Comics city based in the state of New Jersey, USA).  Essentially all clown Arthur Fleck wants – is to be famous, and he will do anything to achieve his aim.  Whether or not any of the action plays out in the real world, or in his mind as a psychiatric patient, is irrelevant for what the film speaks to in my mind – which are the themes of: mental illness, unchecked ambition, celebrity culture and self-delusion. 

These are important subjects which I feel ought to be discussed and addressed in modern society in the era of social media.

Arthur’s world is a very gritty and cruel one, one where working on the streets of Gotham City as a clown where during his job, trying to draw customers to a retail store, he gets beaten up by horrible teenagers in an alleyway and, where most tragically, he finds out his mother is not his biological mother, and in reality he was not conceived on the right side of the sheets during an illicit tryst between his apparent real mother and super powerful Gotham City resident Thomas Wayne character, and that all he really is, is a dirt poor abused orphan.

That is quite a realisation for any person, and especially for mentally disturbed and failed clown Arthur Fleck, which events become the final crystallising moments in Arthur’s homicidal serial killing revenge spree.

What the film also spoke to, is the world of comedy and mass entertainment, which is the biggest farce of all. That making fun of sad people is unfair; yet at the same time, it makes for the very best comedy of self-deprecation when the comic does it himself, and that tragedy and comedy straddle the very same line.

I enjoyed the thread that connected the DC Comics Batman Bruce Wayne’s story and Arthur Fleck’s Joker character, whose genesis in the movie came into being right after he assassinated the famous TV comedy talk-show host character Murray Franklin, played by Robert de Niro, whom Arthur Fleck had idolised.

There are some black comedy genius moments – Arthur’s gun falling out of his clown outfit at a children’s hospital gig, and also where his colleague, dwarf clown Gary, is simply too short to reach the apartment’s front door’s safety chain to escape with his life intact, right after Arthur has brutally murdered other clown colleague, Randall.   

My final analysis is – go see the movie, think for yourself, and don’t believe the hype. The violence is not unnecessary, and it has that “1,000 Ways to Die” feel to it, where social Darwinism says: “those who deserve to die, die”. 

Contributed by:
Barry Varkel, an attorney of the High Court of South Africa and Solicitor of the Supreme Court of England and Wales.
Author of Nigiri Law and Goy Vey


  1. Wow! Great review. I personally haven’t seen the movie yet, but I’m very intrigued to see how “the story unfolds”.

    Will definitely go see this film, thanks Barry!


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