Joker and all the images you see in this review are owned by Warner Bros. Pictures
Directed by Todd Phillips
Are we ready to do this? Alright, let’s do this. So Joker always seemed like an odd choice for a movie as his defining moments have always been in relation to Batman. Take him away, and what are you left with? Well if the trailers are any indication, you get something akin to Travis Bickel in Taxi Driver by way of Krusty the Clown. I mean I was at least interested to see where they were GOING with it since the trailers did a solid job of obscuring what the actual plot was, but the last few weeks of bad press have really drained any enthusiasm I could muster for what was already seeming to be a novelty at best. Does this manage to rise above the controversy surrounding it, especially the controversies cynically generated by those who have an active stake in the film’s success, or will this all be for a movie that ultimately isn’t worth the time and effort? Let’s find out!!
Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is one of many residents in the city of Gotham who is barely getting by and can feels that life has given him a rather crappy lot. All he wanted to do was be a comedian and make people smile, but street punks keep beating him up at his job, the rich politicians and lobbyist keep cutting social services that he needs, and on top of all that he has to take care of his elderly mother Frances Conroy) who’s unshaking belief that Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) will help her and her son has only become more and more obnoxious as the years have gone by. Why… it’s almost enough to drive someone MAD isn’t it!? Like say… if someone got so tired of this that they started wearing clown makeup and robbed banks! Well leave those fantasies at home as this is the REAL Joker for the modern age in that he’s really angry all the time but doesn’t do a heck of a whole lot about it and what he DOES do about it isn’t as… let’s say FLAMBOYANT as his comic book persona would have you believe. Still, the walls are closing in more and more as Arthur’s life goes further and further into chaos to the point that he may just be forced to fight back in a way that no one could possibly expect; least of all himself. Will Arthur’s miserable life come to some sort of hilarious denouement that gets all the squares to pop their monocles? What effect will his actions have on the rest of the city, and is he really so different from all the normal people out there? Seriously, is this REALLY the guy Warner Bros wants to be spouting his manifesto on the big screen right when they’re getting the DCCU back on track?
Short answer; it’s a mixed bag. Some good filmmaking, an okay performances, and it has a few decent ideas sharing space with a muddled and rather boring narrative. Long answer? Whoo boy. I feel the best way to approach this is as a studio blockbuster disguising itself as a passion project that got WAY too personal; auteur theory manipulated into its horrifying excess. Think of movies like The Room, Escape from Tomorrow, or any number of “outsider art” oddities that are compelling in what it says about those who made it, but one that is reverse engineered rather than organically cobbled together. It’s just not as interesting as it clearly aspires to be because despite Warner Bros going HAM on the controversial nature of it Todd Phillips is just not the kind of filmmaker who can sink to those depths and create something truly transgressive and sickening. The worst thing for a shock movie to do is be dull and sure enough they managed to do just that.
I’m gonna start off being nice because there are things about this movie that work. Being the demographic that this film is so obviously targeting, I did find some things uncomfortably relatable in Joaquin Phoenix’s performance. The not-so-quiet suffering, the bitter resentment at the world, the complete devastation and meltdowns from even the tiniest of setbacks… well let’s say that it at least taps into my anxiety about BECOMING someone like that which at least points to something honest in his portrayal, and while the movie ultimately fails to frame this into anything workable as a narrative or even to a real point, there are moments where they REALLY seem to get what Phoenix is doing and build some really great set pieces around it. There’s a dream sequence very early on that is SO brilliantly uncomfortable because it is so distressingly relatable. It’s the fantasy that people are really listening to and that you can captivate an audience with something truly important and interesting to say; that you’re the STAR of the room! I mean look at me, I write things on the internet hoping that someone I respect will give me a thumbs up or someone with lots and lots of money will give cut me a check for all this. It’s such a pinpoint perfect recreation of that sad little lizard brain feeling that I HOPE is universal, but I fear is not, and that goes great with what I THINK they want to do with Arthur in this. He’s strange to be sure, but is he truly outside the realms of pity, respect, and love because of that? The movie never really commits to an answer to that question, but there was something there early on that at least kept my attention, as did the cinematography strong sense of style to it that’s reminiscent ambiguously time-locked aesthetic of the Batman animated series; giving it something of a nostalgic feel no matter when it’s supposed to take place. The last good thing is the way they portray the Wayne family, particularly Thomas Wayne, who is a total blue-blood and snobbish monster; a far cry from the compassionate billionaire father figure that Bruce would eventually idolize. It’s a bit of deconstructing that is by no means UNIQUE but is still fun to see here and points to them having SOMETHING of a clue as to what they’re doing at first that quickly dissipates as the movie goes on.
The big problem that ultimately brings this movie down is not the controversial nature of the content but that it’s just kind of boring. Despite the moments of sympathy to Arthur’s situation, he’s just not a particularly compelling character and it goes back to the wishy washy ideological slant of this movie that refuses to take a firm stance on anything and instead just hints at everything. He’s perpetually miserable, and yet despite the small degree of sympathy I had for him, he never did anything in the movie to justify a better lot in life. Is he a victim of an uncaring society that takes from the poor to hand to the rich? Sure, but so are a lot of people in this town and they aren’t ALSO making really terrible decisions or taking disturbing amounts of pleasure in harming others. So then if he’s not a tragic figure we’re rooting for to succeed, is he instead a compelling monster; someone you want to see succeed despite how bad he is? Not really as the movie doesn’t give you any reason to respect the guy or think he has some sort of unique skill that makes him in any way engaging. What they really needed to do was go full Dexter on this if they wanted THAT kind of character. He needed to be an absolute monster but one that is also charming and whom the framing of the narrative paints as compelling and occasionally the lesser of two evils. He’s not though because, once again, the movie doesn’t want to commit to anything; even the fact that he’s SUPPOSED TO BE A SUPER VILLAIN! Is he a good person turned bad by society? Was his upbringing to blame, or the fact that he went off his medication? Is he a revolutionary who sees the plight of others and takes extreme measures to shine a light on them, or is he just a selfish jerk looking for an excuse to make the rest of the world pay for his unhappiness? Does the movie think that EITHER option is a GOOD thing or a BAD thing? I can only assume that this lack of any coherent theme has to do with this being based on a character with such a mysterious backstory and so no one wants to commit to anything TOO specific lest we lessen their mystique or possibly even ruin the character for some. Ironically though, what you MIGHT consider to be the film’s saving grace is how little of a stake it claims in its own story because, for the most part, it’s not particularly offensive, incendiary, or even all that timely; at least as far as I saw it. Frankly the marketing was far more charged than anything in this movie (God Bless America by Bobcat Goldthwait is WAY more challenging and angry than anything here, and while it has explosive and violent moments that are supposed to shock, they are only shocking in the most sterile and isolated ways and without any real philosophical grounding; a lot of sound and fury that signifies nothing. I don’t know, the most tone oblivious things that I could see was the continued connection that Hollywood LOVES to make between mental illness and violent behavior as well as equating Arthur’s angst with Anti-Fascist and Anti-Capitalist movements, but even then the latter comes off as silly more than anything else.
Now that said, even if I felt the messaging was utterly token, a lot of people don’t seem to see it as such (both those who like it and those who loath it), so we might as well get into it. Simply put, it’s PRETTY darn irresponsible to make a movie aimed at a demographic most commonly associated with mass shootings in this country and provide them with a character that embodies all their angst who then channels it through extreme violence that the movie isn’t too bothered with strongly condemning. The flipside of this film having nothing of particular note to say is that it also means that anyone can pretty much have their own interpretation of the movie that isn’t strictly invalid. With the imagery they use and the story they’re telling, you could just as easily say this is a movie is anti-SJW and anti-MAGA without either being strictly speaking wrong with the one percenters being the primary antagonists against Arthur but also the ANTIFA riots being spurred on by his violent shooting that doesn’t paint them in a good light. There is a SMIDGEN of a good idea there in that The Joker being all about chaos can be influential to many people for many reasons and the movie HINTS at that, but like everything else it tentatively brings up, nothing comes from it. The rich people aren’t characters in this, nor are the police that enforce the laws that keep them rich. The protesters are almost incoherent in what it is they want to accomplish as there’s no real leader that speaks on their behalf, nor are there any characters in the movie that outwardly support them. Seriously, when Batman v Superman does a better job of using a comic book character as a symbol for modern day political divides, you KNOW your movie is not doing a heck of a whole lot for anyone.
Even though this movie is not the THAT bad, it’s not really anything all that great either. The amount of critical buzz, justified concerns, and the usual fan boy abrasiveness have completely overshadowed the rather banal movie that actually got made, and while I wouldn’t recommend seeing it in theaters because it’s kind of rambling mess, it’s certainly fascinating in its own right and might be worth a watch further down the line. In the meantime there are countless movies you can watch that are similar to what this movie is trying to do only better. Bobcat Goldthwait’s directorial films are better than this. Patton Oswalt starred in a movie called Big Fan that was better than this. Heck, you want a REAL distillation of the dangers of disillusioned white dudes? Watch Tom Goes to the Mayor! It’s either aiming to be high art or an imitation of low art, and yet it achieves neither due to an unclear vision for the character and a lack of purpose for the movie’s existence. Still, while some may say that having a genuine if terrible idea is better than no idea, I will say that I’m glad it’s not trying hard enough to be worse than it is. One of the key things about The Joker is that he’s a BAD comedian; someone who genuinely can’t get a laugh from anyone. If you look at it like that, I guess it makes sense that the Joker MOVIE can’t accomplish any of the goals it sets for itself. In the end, it’s just like the character himself; a lot of hot air in an attention grabbing package