- Directed by Todd Phillips
- Written by Todd Phillips and Scott Silver
- Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro and Zazie Beetz
- Classification: R; 121 minutes
If you only know Todd Phillips’s Joker from the sound and fury of its prerelease – from its triumph at the Venice Film Festival, where it won the Golden Lion award for best film, to studio Warner Bros.' many curious promotional decisions, including banning journalists from the film’s red-carpet Hollywood premiere this past weekend – then you might think that the film is an unholy world-burner, toxic and infuriating. The movie will spark mass violence courtesy of societal rejects who identify with its loner anti-hero. Wait, no: The movie is an overdue call to arms against an elite ruling class. Joker is masterful, it is incendiary, it is essential, it is dangerous. It is a piece of cinema so outrageous that the medium itself must be redefined going forward. There was the time before Joker, and the time after.
I hate to deflate a good gag, but: no. No to all the frantic discourse. No to the film being put atop a pedestal of any sort. No to the energy we’re collectively wasting on it. No to an okay-but-not-especially-good-and-ultimately-nothing of a movie. No, then, to Joker.
It gives me little pleasure to play this card. I’m now watching my inbox, admiring its pristine state before it will be turned into a raging dumpster fire of death threats from DC Comics acolytes and those emotionally unsuited to encountering differing opinions – a Flamin’ Hot Cheetos-dusted middle finger from fan-boys who have already offered a small piece of their minds after my short review of Phillips’s film was published during last month’s Toronto International Film Festival.
Okay, here’s an admission: maybe I do get a little pleasure from this. I wouldn’t exactly endorse readers calling me a waste of flesh because I didn’t like a movie about a comic-book bad guy, but it is also very funny that people – many of whom have yet to watch any Joker footage outside of promotional clips – will take the time out of their day to tell me that the world would be a better place once a movie critic is dead. That’s a sicker joke than even the Clown Prince of Crime could come up with.
Certainly it’s a more calculated laugh than anything offered up in Phillips’s film, which is a fine-enough tweak of the comic-book movie that still struggles mightily to locate the energy necessary to justify its existence. If you ever wanted to know about the origins of Batman’s most iconic nemesis, and were not previously satisfied by the material provided in comics, on television, in cartoons, and in three separate feature-film franchises, then Joker is here to ... well, not quite to satisfy you. Honestly, I’m not sure what Joker is here for, other than to cause a clumsily manufactured uproar.
Phillips’s Joker takes the form of Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a stick-thin sack of sad who stumbles through a rotting Gotham City, circa 1981 (no exact date is ever given, but the presence of Brian De Palma’s Blow Out on a downtown marquee fits the era-appropriate set-dressing). Arthur lives with his ailing and domineering mother (Frances Conroy), works as a clown-for-hire and suffers from a vague health condition that causes him to burst into fits of laughter at inappropriate times. He also fancies himself a stand-up comedian, and spends a good deal of his days fantasizing about appearing on a late-night talk show hosted by Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro). A large portion of the film dozily follows Arthur falling deeper into psychosis, until Phillips and his co-writer Scott Silver realize they should insert some sort of action, at which point the movie turns into a briefly exciting, but mostly sloppy, #OccupyGotham polemic.
The filmmakers have the base ingredients for an intriguing, challenging character study that just happens to be nestled inside the DC Comics canon. But Phillips appears to be more interested in making a very costly Martin Scorsese fan-film (with Scorsese’s implied approval, given that he briefly flirted with producing the project). From its set design to its casting decisions to its hmm-could’ve-worked soundtrack choices, Joker is Phillips’s shiny-grimy bid to prove that he’s more a student of capital-a Auteur cinema than a tittering peddler of horny lowbrow comedies (Old School, War Dogs, the Hangover trilogy). Occasionally, Joker even spits up evidence to support this argument.
Phillips’s down-and-out Gotham is captured with a slickly, greasy sheen that delivers welcome echoes of Taxi Driver’s 42nd Street filth. The film’s relatively few flashes of violence are also startling. And while the director’s casting coup of De Niro doesn’t work in the slightest – the actor is on-hand to remind audiences of both Travis Bickle and The King of Comedy’s Rupert Pupkin, but seems invested only in when exactly his cheque will clear – Phillips otherwise pits Phoenix against worthy dramatic adversaries, including Zazie Beetz as Arthur’s rightfully leery neighbour, Brian Tyree Henry as an overwhelmed Arkham Asylum clerk, and character-actor super-stars Bill Camp and Shea Whigham as a pair of weary detectives.
Phoenix himself is, not surprisingly, riveting. Emaciated and exhausted, today’s greatest working actor is easily the best reason to take yet another trip into Gotham City. He doesn’t wash away memories of Heath Ledger’s more slippery agent of chaos, but he does leave his own indelible bruise. Arthur’s perpetual agitation, his under-the-skin unease, is felt in Phoenix’s every onscreen breath and twitch.
Yet, for all of the actor’s commitment and Phillips’s stylistic aspirations, the turbulence that the pair offer isn’t exactly fresh. Arthur is an assemblage of five decades’ worth of trickier characters, all more inventively and provocatively explored before: Bickle and Pupkin and Ledger’s Joker, sure, but also two of Phoenix’s own greatest roles, The Master’s disaffected sailor Freddie Quell and You Were Never Really Here’s burly vigilante Joe. In those latter two films, though, Phoenix had the respective guiding artistic forces of Paul Thomas Anderson and Lynne Ramsay, filmmakers who operate on a more raw and sincere level than Phillips.
In Joker, the Road Trip director is appropriating the visions of his cinematic idols to repudiate his own filmography – “Road Trip director” would be the first sentence that Phillips would hope to scrub from his IMDb profile – but in the filmmaker’s quest to become someone new, he has made something so very old, and familiar. (I have wonderful news, though, for whoever is itching to see Thomas and Martha Wayne once again get shot to death in an alleyway.)
As for politics, Joker has none – and I don’t mean that in some kind of meta-contextual way. Nihilism would be something. Joker has nothing – its only philosophy being a firm belief in the value of shock. And weak shock at that. By the point Arthur finally transforms into the title character – a moment set to Gary Glitter’s Rock and Roll Part 2, a supremely weird choice that unintentionally underlines the film’s goofiness – Joker reveals itself as very expensive cosplay: effective at first glance, but at its seams superficial, disposable and dishonest.
For all the inevitable debate that Joker will spark, I can’t help but wonder what the fuss is all about. Already, this film review is nearly over, and I’m giddy at the prospect of never thinking about this movie again. All those out there who are midway through composing death-threat e-mails would be wise to do the same.
Joker opens Oct. 4
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