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Todd Phillips injects ‘Joker’ with dark humor. But what are we laughing at?

Joaquin Phoenix plays Arthur Fleck in "Joker." (Niko Tavernise/Warner Bros. Pictures via AP)

Warning: This post contains plot spoilers for “Joker.”

Buried in a Vanity Fair profile of “Joker” star Joaquin Phoenix is a bitter remark from director Todd Phillips that made headlines of its own. He mentioned how difficult he finds it “to be funny nowadays with this woke culture,” pointing to a societal shift in values as the reason he chose to take a break from comedies such as “the Hangover” series and instead apply that irreverence to an R-rated comic book film.

The Scorsese-inspired result, “Joker,” is as gritty a drama as it gets, a stark contrast with the laughter woven through the viewing experience. On-screen laughs, both maniacal and otherwise, were bound to be plentiful in a movie about Hollywood’s favorite Batman villain. But Phillips, who co-wrote the script, elicits this response from his viewers as well — and it’s often directed at the character he paints as downtrodden, leading us to wonder what the “woke culture”-decrying director is trying to say.

The film’s Joker is Arthur Fleck (Phoenix), a clown who aspires to be a stand-up comedian like his hero, late-night host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro). Fleck, who lives in a grimy Gotham apartment with his mother (Frances Conroy), suffers from unspecified mental illnesses and a condition that causes him to break into random bouts of high-pitched, hysterical laughter. The fits leave people around Fleck confused, a feeling that sometimes evolves into fear or hostility, even after he hands them the card he carries around that explains the condition.

As a result, the alienated man is a frequent target of violent teenagers and entitled Wall Street bros, three of whom he ends up murdering on the subway — a crime that sets him on a dangerous path and sparks a kill-the-rich movement among Gotham’s struggling citizens.

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Fleck initially seems to be a sympathetic character, one whose own boss doesn’t believe his story about how teenagers stole a store-closing sign he’d been spinning on the sidewalk and then beat him up when he chased after them. He also becomes a victim of Gotham’s incompetent health-care system when the city cuts funding for the program that provided him with therapy and medications.

And yet much of the film’s humor is at Fleck’s expense. Early on, Phillips stations musical cues and directs Phoenix’s performance in a manner that highlights the absurdity of Fleck’s condition. After he is unfairly chastised by his boss, for example, Fleck bursts into a fit of laughter that suddenly cuts off as he lumbers down a quiet, empty hallway. Viewers might laugh, too, and the movie seems to want them to.

But why? As “Joker” progresses, Phoenix amps up the grotesque nature of Fleck’s behavior, suggesting the audience is not really meant to sympathize with the character. Extremely fair, given that he commits multiple brutal murders on screen. On the flip side, he’s also portrayed as a sick man ushered into darkness by his delusions and society’s great ills. By setting viewers up to laugh at Fleck’s struggles — unfortunate timing that, in a sense, reflects his own condition — is Phillips indicting them as well?

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Perhaps the takeaway is obvious: that life is one big joke, echoing Fleck’s on-the-nose musing about how he thought his life was a tragedy but realizes it’s a comedy. A more nihilist read of what Phillips chooses to play for laughs would be, as some critics have said of the film itself, that there is no meaning to it at all.

Oddly enough, the only humor that seems to serve an express purpose has little to do with Fleck himself. Two different scenes include dated jokes made at the expense of a little person, which recalls the style of comedy Phillips said he no longer feels able to pursue. Those jokes, at the very least, are Phillips’s way of giving “woke culture” the brushoff.

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