Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen, Shea Whigham, Bill Camp, Marc Maron, Brian Tyree Henry
Director: Todd Phillips
Running time: 2 hours
by Jericho Cerrona
At the very least, Todd Phillips’s Joker deserves points for embracing the kind of nihilism rarely seen in mainstream superhero cinema. This is an even scuzzier installment of the already scuzzy Zack Snyder-adjacent DC universe, with all of humanity’s most sadistic qualities placed front and center. However, the unrelenting grimness ultimately becomes numbing rather than novel. What Phillips and co-screenwriter Scott Silver fail to grasp is the emotional, psychological, and narrative depth of the 1970s cinema they are shamelessly aping (i.e. Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy). There was a purpose to the desperate loneliness of a Travis Bickle or the social ineptitude of a Rupert Pupkin. These were lone male figures representing a microcosm of the sociopolitical forces at work during those specific decades, whereas Phillips’s vision of a middle-aged white sociopath is tame by comparison. For all the controversy surrounding its release, Joker is surprisingly coy about actually confronting the political signifiers and racial elements hanging on the fringes. Instead, the film’s faux-edginess becomes laughable.
When we first meet Gotham’s future arch villain, it’s in the form of Arthur Fleck (Phoenix), a loner toiling away in a trash dump fashioned after 1980s-era Manhattan. Acting as a clown performer twirling signs on sidewalks and entertaining sick children in hospitals, Fleck is a skeletal ghost who feels lost amidst the city’s filth and crime. He visits a therapist, jots down observations in his diary, and takes medication for a disorder which includes uncontrollable laughing. Fleck is also an aspiring stand up comedian, idolizing late-night TV talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro, just in case we missed the blatant The King of Comedy connection), but his material consists mostly of awkward cackling and knock-knock jokes.
During these early opening moments, we are asked to play along with this supposed character study of a troubled man with delusions of grandeur, but there’s really no psychological insight being gleaned here. As played by Phoenix with all manner of goofy tics, Fleck is little more than a cartoon postcard for “mental illness” if all the specifics of that term were removed as to be practically meaningless. If viewed as unintentional comedy, Joker works in fits and starts; seeing as Phillips’s direction consists mostly of long shots of Phoenix brooding/freaking out accompanied by horror music cues. However, if taken straight (which is surely the intention), the film falls apart under the weight of its own solemnity.
There’s a sickly mother (Frances Conroy), and a friendly neighbor (Zazie Beetz), but the film is oppressively relegated to Fleck’s point of view. As such, our anti-hero finds his inner clown prince after gunning down a group of Wall street assholes who accosted him on the train. Filmed like a Death Wish-esque revenge encounter, the murders are framed as an act of noble desperation, but there’s very little suggestion that we should feel implicated for enjoying this moment of violence. Phillips isn’t a director who can handle contradictory elements working in tandem, and so whatever dangerous ideas the film may be dealing with are handled in the broadest of strokes. For example, by setting the film in a vaguely 80s time period and amping up the comic book pulpiness, any genuine parallels to real-world concerns (political protests, incel ideology, reactionary violence) are conveniently neutralized. In fact, Joker would have been more incendiary had it actually taken place in the present day, without allusions to billionaire Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), and his son, Bruce (Dante Pereira-Olson). Hell, we even get the obligatory fan-service death of Bruce’s parents at the hands of a masked henchman.
Much of the film’s obvious flaws will be offset by praise for Phoenix’s technically dazzling performance, but it exists inside a vacuum surrounded by a film that doesn’t know what to do with his off-kilter energy. Phillips is either uninterested or incapable of channelling his lead actor’s derangement into the overall aesthetic of his film, and aside from impressively grubby set design, there’s nothing remarkable from a filmmaking standpoint going on here.
If taken as a gritty origins story, Joker feels cobbled together from pieces of superior movies dealing with male anxiety and societal rage, and if viewed as a comic book entry, Fleck’s transformation into a psychotic agent of chaos is anti-climatic. Since no emotional or psychological stakes have been built up over the course of the film, the ending lands with a complete thud. Perhaps a little intentional macabre humor would have helped (ala Jack Nicholson’s incarnation in Tim Burton’s Batman) or even a demented satisfaction in seeing anarchy reign supreme. Sadly, Phillips wants us to take all of this oh, so seriously. We are meant to be shocked and repulsed by the mayhem (and we are), but the film misses an opportunity to complicate our feelings regarding Fleck’s actions. The most shocking thing about Joker is just how listless and unimaginative its messaging is. There’s no clear perspective on the issues it’s dealing with. It exists simply to prod and provoke with no substantive argument, like a clown mask-wearing protestor holding up a sign which reads “This shit be dark, motherfuckers!”