It’s been made clear what Todd Phillips is going for with Joker, his new “super twisted” and “ultra gritty” take on the iconic comic book villain, and the former comedy filmmaker certainly delivers on the obvious expectations. Joker is, of course, inspired by a pair of legendary Martin Scorsese pictures: Taxi Driver and King of Comedy. That much has been made apparent time and time again for what feels like years of pre-release discourse, and the story doesn’t shy away from its overt influences, it hits those reference points early and often. But it’s also a mishmash of dozens of other seventies movies all fighting for recognition in an obvious and painfully glib screenplay that Joaquin Phoenix almost manages to save on his hunched, bony shoulders.
This is a showcase for Phoenix, and it’s worth seeing just to watch him be great at Extremely Acting. Emaciated to near Christian Bale Machinist levels, Phoenix is a marvel not only in his physical performance, but in his dedication to Work Hard, and Work Big, to try everything he can to save a story that’s so satisfied with its own coolness and sophomoric references to venture beyond the comforting confines of familiarity. He is utterly fascinating in an utterly ordinary movie disguised as some deep, thought-provoking opus. And just because this is a comic-book movie doesn’t mean it’s not a remake of a classic – or multiple classics. Travis Bickle is just in clown makeup this time.
No matter how earnestly Phoenix tries to steer his Arthur Fleck into the depths of any honest character study, Phillips’ and Scott Silver’s screenplay brings everything back to the middle, so it can hit squarely on the nose time, and time again. Arthur Fleck is a sad sack, yes. Maybe an incel, who knows. The movie doesn’t really have an idea about anything one way or another. Arthur works as a sign-spinning clown and he gets his ass kicked by “society” in literal and figurative ways for quite some time until he snaps and the film has its much-publicized flashes of violence; they aren’t as bad as what you’ve heard.
Arthur lives with his ailing mother (Francis Conroy) in a dilapidated mid-1970’s Gotham/NYC, and he fancies his new neighbor, Sophie, played sparingly by Zazie Beetz. Arthur has aspirations to be a standup comedian but, as his mother asks, “don’t you have to be funny to do that?” The discouragement doesn’t deter Arthur, because nothing really affects Arthur Fleck. He can’t manage to complete the simplest of communicative tasks in society without making things awkward, thanks in most part to his affliction: when he is distressed or uncomfortable, Arthur belts out a pretty unsettling, chin-bouncing cackle. It makes uncomfortable situations even more cringe worthy, and it’s a compelling way to incorporate some mythos of the DC character into a “real world” setting, though very little else in the story has that sort of inventiveness.
We find out a great deal about Arthur in the middle of Phillips’ oppressively bitter movie, but it’s all so obvious. There are interesting developments in the back story of the character and its relationship to other DC properties, but even that is stretched beyond its effectiveness. One character tells Arthur that something isn’t true, and the audience knows now that information isn’t true, yet we have twenty minutes of Arthur investigating the claim… only to find out it isn’t true. Yeah, we know, we know all of this.
Scenes are languid and linger on Phoenix when they haven’t earned that sort of grandiosity. Nothing is as shocking as it thinks it is, at least not for anyone whose seen more than two violent movies in their life. There is nothing subtle about Joker. Not that there needs to be, but without any subtlety the entire story contains almost no surprise. We get it, this Big Apple stand-in is scummy and crime ridden with piles of trash bags lining city streets. It’s all background, though, referenced in radio and TV news reports. Arthur never engages with society in a substantial enough way to feel included in this world.
So much of Joker feels like an exercise in style, a setup to let Joaquin Phoenix be weird or act crazy or inexplicably dance to the music in his head in a dingy bathroom after a murder. Fleck never elevates beyond a cypher for Phillips and his attempt to push some sort of envelope nobody asked him to push, and he stylizes the whole thing within an inch of its life. The cinematography and painstakingly specific lighting in Joker is the driving force behind the picture’s achingly on point visual language, and as we fall deeper into despair with Arthur Fleck and the checklist of people and places abandoning him – his therapy sessions, his meds, his job, his mom, and on and on – every aesthetic beat and stylistic choice is as predictable as the mail.
Any time a scene or a shot or a brief moment has a chance to be something new and take the film in a different direction, the story upends its antihero and takes us back to the clearest, most obvious context, or the most hamfisted delivery. We are forced to watch Arthur go through one loss, and then another, and one uncomfortable situation after another, and all the while the nervous cackling affliction is played so often its eventually drained of its effectiveness. The story plays tricks on us, but we see the strings from the beginning. It’s not getting anything by us, and it grows repetitive in a hurry. By the fiftieth awkward laughing fit, about halfway through, I started checking my watch.
And yes, to tie in even more with King of Comedy, Robert De Niro has a brief role as Murray Franklin, a late night talk-show host whom Arthur idolizes. He plays prominently into the film, but again De Niro’s scenes add very little, if any, new texture to a character we’ve seen done as well as Phoenix before, only those performers had the advantage of being in superior movies that didn’t feel like they needed to spoon feed thematic material to the audience. By the time we hit the third act, I wanted to tell the movie, “I get it, okay? I get it!” But the movie never thought I really did get it.
Phillips definitely carries a disdain for critics and for most of his audience, it’s clear in most of his work. But he has talent, and Joker feels like the most accurate representation of Todd Phillips, Director. Moments of greatness flash by, but cynicism and a repellant attitude dominate, and aren’t so much provocative as they are bratty and obvious. To say this movie will be an inspiration for a mass shooter or will become the new silver screen incel manifesto is giving too much power to a film that doesn’t deserve all this hysterical reactionary discourse. Joker bends over backwards to be cool and nihilistic and murderous, but it’s still so concerned about what you think of it that it can’t ever venture into anywhere worth analyzing.