For all the controversy and debate swirling around Todd Phillip’s Joker, you’d think it was some bracing disturbing, anarchic look at a mad man reacting to the insanity of society. It’s not any of that, in fact, I would go so far as to say Joker is a safe, timid, and bland studio offering the likes of which people say the other studio’s movies are. This is not to say the movie is bad, but it’s not good either.
Muddled and pompous Joker spends two hours riffing on themes it never commits to. Inspired by the “personal cinema” of the ’70s, Phillips has aped the style but none of the conviction and understanding of the cinema of that time. Joker is the type of movie that is so faux edgy, the actual Joker would likely be repulsed by it. Forget having no heart the movie doesn’t even have a spine to prop itself up.
Oh, and Joker is dull to boot; dull, dull, dull, dull. Like some angry teenager ranting and raving about “society” on a message board it grows tedious and more suspect with each passing scene. Much like the metaphorical teenager, Joker is a selfish and vain project. Joaquin Phoenix is in every scene and is forced to drag a movie with almost no supporting cast, to the last reel.
Phoenix is given nothing to work with, not a script or even a co-star. The poor man is adrift and alone in a sea of other people who exist solely to give him lines to react to. It is easy to look at Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck and think we’re seeing a great performance. But look closer and you’ll see a hollow facsimile of Phoenix’s usual genius.
The great tragedy is that for about 30 minutes or so Phillips teases us with substance before stepping away and instead focusing on “woke culture” and the subjective truth of morality; all of which are the ramblings of a child who’s never moved out of his parent’s basement. But in the beginning, Phillips is in real danger of making a point.
Phillips shows Arthur attending therapy and struggling with his medication. Joker looks at how the cutting of social services could be harmful, not just to individuals but to society at large. Arthur is in real need of help and seems destined to always be at the brink of receiving some before having it cruelly ripped away. Though what exactly Arthur suffers from isn’t exactly clear.
While riding the bus a small child turns around and Arthur makes faces at him to entertain him. The mother yells at him to leave her kid alone. Arthur begins to laugh, admittedly an odd response. He hands her a card which says due to a brain trauma he laughs uncontrollably even when he doesn’t want to. The character quirk has the benefit of being a true mental disorder but Phillips and his co-writer Scott Silver do little with it.
Phoenix only laughs in scenes in which you would expect the filmmakers would have him laugh to make the scene uncomfortable. In other scenes which are a capital “d” drama heavy, scenes in which Arthur breaking out into hysterics would have been an interesting choice, Arthur’s soon to be infamous laugh is conspicuously missing. The cynical part of me wants to say since the movie is adverse to actually being interesting, Joker avoids theses moments on purpose.
Take the moment in which Arthur’s mother Penny (Francis Conroy) tells him about his father. A dramatic and emotionally charged moment for Phoenix’s character and yet he handles it curiously as you would expect anyone would. Or when Arthur is being questioned by two police officers for the murder of three Wall Street businessman he seems weirdly normal. My point is Arthur’s “uncontrollable” laughter seems oddly controlled.
Granted this could be Phillips’ and Silver’s way of hinting at that Arthur made it up-which would go against the grain of him having neurological issues stemming from a brain injury. Not to mention his discovery of his mother’s institutionalization and his own adoption which lead to him discovering that the brain trauma he suffered as a child came from his own mother would seem moot if he was faking it.
Phoenix’s performance is not only hollow, but it is also weirdly selfish. What I mean is, watching the scenes in Joker where he interacts with other actors they seem to be acting as opposed to reacting. They share a scene but there is no chemistry. Phoneix has walled himself off from being able to connect or give the other actors anything to work with.
Except for Brian Tyree Henry. He plays an orderly at Arkham Asylum and is onscreen for all of maybe three minutes. In these precious few minutes, he walks away with the entire movie, holding it above his head as if he’s playing keep-away with Phoenix. Henry is rapidly becoming an actor whose mere presence acts as a lifeboat in a movie utterly out of its depth. An actor who whenever he shows up ignites a smile of delight making even the most intolerable movie somewhat tolerable. Henry’s character was the first real human being in Joker and he doesn’t show up until almost an hour and a half into the movie!
Understand Joker is such a depressing sleepwalk of a film that the fact that Robert DeNiro who plays a talk show host Murray Franklin, a nod not only to the Scorsese influence but to his movie The King of Comedy, barely rises to the level of worth mentioning. Even though DeNiro’s Murray is arguably the second most important character in the film, it’s meaningless. He’s there because he was in the movie that the Joker wishes it was and desperately wants to be compared to.
Watching Phoenix and DeNiro act off each other I was shocked by how much they weren’t. There was no electricity in the air. Much like everybody else, the two are talking to each other but not reacting. They are so busy acting that it’s all we can see.
The director Sidney Lumet once talked about working with Marlon Brando. Brando was infamous for being difficult on set. “But I never had a problem with Marlon.” Lumet went on to explain how Brando would give two identical takes on the first day of filming. The difference, according to Lumet, was one take was on autopilot and the other showed Brando living and breathing in the moment.
Brando would wait to see which take the director chose and if he chose the autopilot one he gave you hell the rest of production. I can’t help but feel Phillips can’t tell the difference between the autopilot and the performance with everything on the line. What’s the difference you ask? Watch Lynne Ramsey’s You Were Never Really Here and then watch a scene of Phoneix’s Joker. The difference is all the difference.
But hey it looks great. Which is no surprise since Lawrence Sher shot the immensely gorgeous and strangely etheric Godzilla: King of the Monsters. He bathes Joker in a sort of perpetual doom and gloom. Green and orange hues are streaked across the screen in order to give us the feel of grime and filth covering the street of Gotham. Much like The Goldfinch, Joker looks great but Phillips doesn’t know what to do with any of it.
He’s unable to infuse Sher’s style with anything other than copy cat images. He doesn’t reinterpret them or even try to update them to fit modern sensibilities. Arguably Joker has the most style of any film Phillips has made so far but incredibly it lacks any kind of mood or atmosphere. Phoenix is a powerful actor but Phillips seems incapable of giving him anything to do or say of interest.
For a movie about a murder clown who worships at the altar of chaos, Joker is shockingly bland and wildly self-serious. At one point Arthur walks into a sliding door because it doesn’t open. It’s funny and speaks to how Arthur doesn’t feel seen. But it’s at that moment that I realized how little I had been laughing. Imagine what a truly daring movie Joker would have been if it had been at all funny. A dark comedy about a man who feels so rejected from society, he can’t help but come to any other conclusion but to tear it down.
Heck just imagine if Lupita Nyongo, Idris Elba, Benicio del Toro, or even Toni Collete would play such a character. HA! As if!?
Joker is nothing more but the same tripe we’ve been making under the guise of “serious art” for decades. White male pain which has so depressed artists by making them millionaires and comfortably enshrouded them into our cultural lexicon. The difference between Phillips and Martin Scorsese, an artist in which he has vocally said inspired the movie, is that Scorsese is both repelled and fascinated by his toxic characters.
Phillips identifies and agrees with Arthur. Not in the sense that he’d kill three rich dudes. Oh no. Phillips is a successful filmmaker and a millionaire he would never betray his class by daring to say they deserve any kind of legal or moral repercussions for their part in the financial collapse.
Which begs the question of how can anyone take a treatise about the madness of class warfare and a celebration of anarchy, while criticizing a revolution as being too sensitive, when he’s safely ensconced in the very system he claims is against him, seriously? My god how white, straight, and male, can you be?
We live in a world infinitely more mad and wild than the one Arthur Fleck inhabits. In our world a woman, who was a Conservative plant, stood up at a town hall held by Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to discuss climate change and endorsed eating babies as a solution. It is a reference to Jonathan Swift’s essay “A Modern Proposal” which was a satiric takedown of the xenophobic and harmful policies of the time. Joker seems almost quaint by comparison.
But none of it matters. I say this because the film all but says so outright, thanks to the ending which I won’t spoil. I’ll just say it’s hilarious considering how pretentious and serious-minded the movie pretended to be only to pull out what is ostensibly a writing trick created by the showrunner of Dallas. It worked for Dallas, not so much for Joker.
Of all the crimes and misdemeanors found in Joker, the worst is its criminal waste of Zazie Beetz. Like Brian Tyree Henry she is a joy no matter what movie she’s in. Phillips and Silver’s script not only wastes her but worse reduces her to essentially an object solely for Arthur’s fantasies. It all burns so much more luminescent due to the film’s almost unbearable mediocrity.
Joker is a movie so up its own ass, it thinks to have a character who will one day be the “clown prince of crime” starts out as a literal failed clown and a worse stand up comic, is edgy. It is not. It is pedantic and, I’d call it sophomoric, but honestly, sophomores have an excuse, they’re teenagers after all. Phillips and Silver are supposedly two grown men.
The violence is tame while the machismo is exorbitant. It is “try hard” cinema at its apex; the fragile male ego laid bare as it shivers in terror that it might one day have to reckon with the crap we’ve tossed into the streets. But in the end, what makes Joker so tragic is that it’s just so-so.
Muddled and ill-conceived it never rises to basic vulgarity. I have my issues with Zack Snyder’s Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice but its failures are because it aims for the stars and burns to a cinder trying to escape the atmosphere. Joker never bothers to leave its own backyard.
Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures