Joker and the Need for Family, by Kody Wayne Cooper

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By Kody Wayne Cooper, Public Discourse, October 14, 2019

Critics of Joker have missed the central message of the story: the descent into madness begins with the breakdown of the family and fatherhood.

Setting the box office record for an October release, the new film Joker is a worldwide phenomenon. Before its release and since, discussion of the film has been obsessed with the debate over whether the portrayal of a disaffected white man violently lashing out at society might bleed over into real life by breeding copycats or if such suggestions are the overreach of woke culture. Major reviewers have judged the film to be “empty,” “foggy,” and a “bad movie,” that “leaves you numb.” But critics have missed what seems to me a central message of the story: the descent into madness begins with the breakdown of the family.

 Joker stars Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck, a clown-for-hire and aspiring standup comic, and Robert De Niro as Murray Franklin, a late-night talk show host. Buoyed by Phoenix’s Academy-Award-meriting performance, the setting of the story is early 1980s Gotham. Dingy living spaces, trash-strewn, rat-infested streets, and random muggings call to mind the New York City of the 1970s—memorialized in films like Taxi Driver—and provide a general sense of dread. “Is it just me, or is it getting crazier out there?” Arthur asks his therapist.

Arthur undergoes a series of unfortunate events, including loss of his job, failure to find a new career, romantic cowardice and unfulfillment, multiple physical attacks, declining mental health, and the loss of city-funded counseling. Arthur’s ultimate loss of sanity and turn to violence can thus be seen as the story of a man lashing out at a society whose uncaring indifference created the villain. Still, while a range of causes are certainly present, Arthur’s descent into madness is fundamentally a story about the breakdown of the family. ….