Director: Todd Phillips
Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Frances Conroy, Zazie Beetz
We’ve all been had.
Depending on where you look, Todd Phillips’ Joker is either a new renaissance in cinema and high water mark for comic book movies, or the most dangerous tosh to get carted out all year, ready to recklessly incite violence in the maladjusted masses. Neither extreme seems particularly accurate when looking at the thing itself.
Why the contention? Films that place violent social malcontents front and centre are nothing new, and each time a prominent one is released, the same conversation about artistic responsibility rears its head. Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of A Clockwork Orange was banned for years in the UK. Martin Scorsese faced these questions over the vigilantism of Taxi Driver and of The King of Comedy. Around the turn of the millennium we saw the likes of Fight Club and (to a lesser degree) American Psycho. Todd Phillips’ Joker was destined to elicit more of the same, though its status in comparison to these aforementioned giants has been hyped out of all reason. Adding fuel to the fire are Phillips’ own sulky comments, blaming ‘woke culture’ for killing comedy. His words unfortunately only amplify the entrenched bitterness and narcissistic folly of his new movie; neither a masterpiece nor a complete write-off.
Joaquin Phoenix is one of the most watchable men working in American movies and his casting here was the biggest draw. He lost a lot of weight to play Gotham’s guffawing outsider Arthur Fleck, and for seemingly no good reason. His sinuous body and protruding ribs add no extra dimension to a character clumsily written within an inch of the offensive. Suffering from a made-up affliction that causes him to laugh uncontrollably, Fleck is the centrepoint of Joker‘s outdated mandate that any and all of us medicated for mental illnesses are ticking time-bombs of insanity just waiting to go off. Phoenix’ pantomime routine is engaging and even mildly charismatic at times (mainly when he dances), but when set beside his greatest hits, Joker simply doesn’t compare.
This is mainly down to the lacklustre material, which runs full pelt toward any cliché it can set its sights on. Riffing on the aforementioned The King of Comedy to the point of plagiarism, the plot contains no shocks, nothing original. By the time Fleck has shot and killed three hyena-esque bankers on a subway train, the remainder of the movie is locked in the mind’s eye and it doesn’t deviate from expectations. Early fantasy sequences tip too keenly that Fleck’s perspective is untrustworthy. A mid-film reveal is edited as though its a major twist… it isn’t. It lands as flatly as Fleck’s awkward stand-up routine.
Phillips’ movie seems undecided on where it wants to sit in the greater canon of DC material. Joker leans on its comic book roots with talk of ‘super rats’ invading the city, but would prefer you notice how hopelessly indebted it is to the gritty New American Cinema of the 70’s, with its realness and grime. It seems perhaps overconfident that it has captured that particular feeling. This sense of smug self-satisfaction infects the whole production. Joker is overly confident of its status as the poster-child for disaffected youth. It’s ‘too cool’ to be just another super villain movie, yet, at the same time, it panders to the larger lore of Batman every chance it gets, eager to seem relevant to yet another reboot or sequel whose existence is waiting on this weekend’s box office results.
With that in mind, it wobbles when it comes to a political stance. Fleck pointedly mentions that his vigilantism is not intended as a political gesture. His actions spark legions of rioting followers, whom Fleck seems – at best – mildly bemused by. This feels like cushioning from producers all-too-wary of poking the bear. Aside from a sweeping sense of the rich living better lives than the poor (no shit), Fleck’s complaints don’t add up to much, making this feel more like the origin story of Kevin Spacey’s character in Se7en than the fantastic nemesis of The Dark Knight. There’s a case to be made – ironically – with regards to the media blowing events out of proportion, but Joker never really goes anywhere with this, either.
Phillips’ name clearly drew a lot of talent to the picture. The supporting cast is overstuffed with great actors happy to do day-player work which translates into above average small performances surrounding the main character study. And Phillips undeniably has an eye for a well-organised frame. Several shots exhibited in the trailer already feel iconic in an anaemic sort of way. But there again you have the sense of a piece of work designed to hang on bedroom walls as poster art more than anything else. It’s all posturing.
Which is harmless, really. Coming out of the movie, its hard to really imagine even a troubled mind feeling riled up to take inspiration from Fleck. An origin story with delusions of grandeur, Joker‘s greatest trick is convincing the world that it ought to be taken seriously. There’s nothing to get worked up about here. Despite the best efforts of everyone, Joker is thoroughly – perhaps even fatally – so-so.
I suffer from anxiety and depression, and I take medication to assist with both. The most dangerous thing that Joker inspired in me was a desire to maybe try out some waistcoats.