Put on a happy face.
Hark to the tale of Arthur Fleck: devoted son, clown for hire, talentless stand-up comedian, and future supervillain.
A few origins for Batman’s arch-nemesis The Joker have been floated over the years, most notably in Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s landmark graphic novel, The Killing Joke. Co-writer (with Scott Silver) and director Todd Phillips mixes together a few of them and scatters in a hefty dose of ’70s/’80s cinema, Martin Scorsese in particular and Bad Old New York City in general, to position the Clown Prince of Crime as God’s Lonely Man: alienated but desperate for connection, criminally violent but with a keen sense of (in)justice, villainous but … well, he’s got a point. After all, as the memes say, We Live In A Society.
First things first, let’s just say for the record that the controversy surrounding this film is almost entirely unearned. At best it’s well-intentioned social media hysteria; at worst, it’s carefully stage-managed viral marketing, and frankly any commentator worth their salt flapping their hands over the Joker’s potential as an Incel Messiah is willfully stoking the flames for their own benefit (and if they’re not, well, they’re not worth their salt, are they?) We already had 4Chan Jesus Joker a decade ago, and Joaquin Phoenix’s interpretation of the character is not going to supplant Heath Ledger’s in that regard. Phoenix’s villain-protagonist is too pathetic by far, way more Rupert Pupkin than Travis Bickle, and while the details of his biography might make him a more accurate portrait of the lonely boys of the internet, that doesn’t make him a figure worth emulating — Ledger’s murderously capricious interloper, free of any embarrassing past or fixed identity, is a much more likely role model. He can be whoever he wants to be at any given moment. Arthur, even with his makeup and green-dyed hair, is only ever Arthur.
The most interesting question the film throws up is the old nature vs. nurture rag: whether his identity and destiny were fixed from birth or if society made him that way, but it stacks the deck in favor of the latter. On the one hand, we know Arthur has some kind of presumably innate mental illness that sets him apart from the pack and makes him a target. He’s medicated, dependent upon social services, and has fits of laughter when under emotional pressure (he carries a laminated card to explain this to upset strangers). There’s something just not right about the boy, and though his aging and infirm mother (Frances Conroy) tells him he’s been put on this earth to bring joy to people, that just ain’t so. He’s reaching for something he just can’t grasp, and when a video of his disastrous open mic act finds its way onto a late-night talk show hosted by Murray Franklin — Robert De Niro doing Carson, Letterman, and a riff on his own work in The King of Comedy (1982) — he is roundly mocked and rejected by Murray, his audience, and, by extension, the world.
Ah yes, the world — for some viewers, that’ll be the real villain of Joker, and the film makes a good case for it. Arthur might be a weirdo, but he embraces violence as a resort and then as a guiding ethos only after he’s received well more than his fair share of it. He’s mugged and beaten on the job, denied the help he needs when social services funding is cut, he’s prodded and ridiculed and poked and pushed until his ultimate response seems both inevitable and cathartic. Indeed, when Arthur starts to get some violent retribution against the people and institutions that have wronged him, it’s impossible not to be in his corner — so many of them have it coming.
Which is interesting, but not dangerous — and not exactly original. Morally questionable protagonists are nothing new, but they may have had their cinematic heyday in the ’70s and early ’80s. Of course, there’s the aforementioned Bickle and Pupkin, but Joker also references Death Wish’s Paul Kersey, and real-life crimes and incidents like the 1984 Bernie Goetz subway shooting and the 1977 New York blackout and riots. The decision to make the film a period piece seems to stem from two drives: a) to tie the Joker in with Batman’s origins (you are gonna see pearls hit the pavement again, folks — it must be contractual) and b) to directly borrow as much cultural energy from the current film’s obvious inspirations as possible.
And yeah, it’s kind of interesting to see a Gotham City that is late ’70s* New York City with the serial numbers filed off, steeped in garbage and graffiti, wreathed in steam and carbon monoxide, populated with criminals, pimps, prostitutes, leering freaks, and beaten-down, defeated working schlubs. There’s no hope here, and the film even goes out of its way to position the saintly Thomas ‘Batman’s Dad’ Wayne (Brett Cullen) as an amoral and self-absorbed aristo. He’s not quite a Trump palimpsest, but director Phillips takes pains to remind us that there are no good billionaires, not when the world is in such a parlous state.
But to what end?
That’s my big issue with Joker. It’s a magpie of a film that pulls from a number of broadly similar source texts and tones and themes and pulls them together to make something largely indistinguishable from those selfsame sources, only not as original and so not as shocking, provocative, or engaging. This isn’t like a Quentin Tarantino joint — old QT is a master at remixing cultural signifiers to produce something in a register that feels fresh and new. Go look at Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood (2019) again — that movie is a pop culture mosaic, but when you step back and take it in as a whole, the effect is singular. Joker, on the other hand, feels like Scorsese fanfic. It’s The Max Fischer Players do Mean Streets (1973).
Now, there could be an audience for that, and maybe your average popcorn-muncher these days isn’t au fait with the ’70s canon, and that’s fine. Perhaps we need one of these allegedly complex, ostensibly controversial angry bro flicks every decade or two for people to argue over — the last one to get this kind of attention was 1999’s Fight Club, and that sure got put through the critical wringer once or twice. But Joker certainly is not Fight Club, and I think you’d be insane to aver they’re of comparable quality (still, come at me — if you can make a good case, I’m all ears).
There’s a ponderous inevitability to everything that happens in Joker, which in retrospect makes sense; for all that Phillips and co. have taken pains to distance their film from the larger, loosely connected DCEU, it’s still a prequel by effect if not intent, which means we always have a pretty clear idea of where we are going to wind up when the credits roll — the fun, if that’s the right word, is in the journey. And there are things worth enjoying here: Phoenix’s unblinkingly committed performance being the main one. The supporting cast is pretty great, too; while much has been made of De Niro’s turn, as well as podcaster and comedian Marc Maron’s near cameo, the standout is Zazie Beetz, Deadpool 2 (2018), as a struggling single mother who lives in Arthur’s dilapidated apartment building, and whom he has incorporated into his fantasies of success and esteem (shades of Cybill Shepherd in Taxi Driver). Her screentime is limited, but the gradual reveal of the asymmetric relationship between her and Arthur is quite chilling.
Still, the film is less than the sum of its parts. Phillips’ thesis is muddled and unclear, although his misanthropy is as plain as it has ever been — the man who made the Hangover trilogy (2009-13) and War Dogs (2016) is clearly not a huge fan of people as a whole, and working in a more dramatic space lets him indulge his pessimism to the fullest extent yet.
But simple, unexamined nihilism is a pretty adolescent philosophy, and for all that it borrows from more thematically complex earlier films, Joker remains a pretty adolescent work. It’s not just that, at base, the Joker remains a children’s character; other artists such as Alan Moore, Frank Miller, and Christopher Nolan have successfully given us relatively sophisticated takes on the guy. Phillips’ attempt, however, feels lazy and unearned, having bolted the aesthetic of Serious ’70s Cinema into the preexisting property but having translated very few of the weighty themes thereof. It’s all just posturing; beneath the painted-on smile, there’s nothing of substance.
*A cinema marquee actually pegs the date as at least 1981, but the aesthetic is the aesthetic.
2 / 5 – Average
Reviewed by Travis Johnson