We’ve had the Joker as a cackling crook, cooking up deliciously devious heists. We’ve had the Joker as a gangland mob boss trying to take over Gotham City. We’ve had the Joker as an anarchist and most recently as a sadist with poor impulse control when it comes to tattoos. But now, for the bleakest era, here is the Joker as…a martyr?
The most Joker thing about Todd Phillips onanistic opus “Joker” is the furore and media frenzy it’s whipped up around itself. It’s the perfect smokescreen for one of the Clown Prince of Crime’s trademark masterplans of misdirection. The least Joker thing about the film is that once you fan away all the hagiographic exultations of game-changing and groundbreaking, and the tedious Helen Lovejoy-ing over the dangers this really quite tame film supposedly poses, it becomes disappointingly clear there is no masterplan; no substance behind the borrowed style – it’s all as thin as a layer of greasepaint.
Our protagonist is Arthur Fleck. Arthur lives in a society. Unemployment and social deprivation dominate and yet the economy can support a busy clown-for-hire agency where Arthur finds gainful full-time employment. Until he loses his job too. And his mental health counselling program gets cut.
Writer/ Director Todd Phillips wants you to know he’s not kidding around anymore. He’s stepped away from comedy because it’s too hard to do now so he’s moved into serious social commentary because everyone knows, that’s easy. He’s certainly done his homework, or at least he’s copied someone else’s homework but forgot to change it up enough so as you can’t tell. He’s mimicking Marty to an embarrassing degree here, yet while he gets the broad strokes of his cover version right, he misses any of the depth, or intricacy or subtlety that lends the gritty bleakness substance.
There’s a compelling and poignant story to tell here, not that Phillips is interested in telling it well. He includes important, timely and significant themes but after bludgeoning you in the face with them he has nothing else to say, no point to make. There’s zero respect for the intelligence of his audience and thus he takes pains to literally spell out his topics like a high school debate preamble. Just in case you’re not getting the fact Arthur struggles with mental illness, he has the character write down that he is struggling with mental illness and show it to camera. This leadenly literal gimmick is repeated ad nauseam throughout the film as the basic script simply announces what’s important or, later, has people hold up placards to keep you informed as to what the subtext is.
Visually, there are some pretty nice shots (again borrowed) and he’s so enamoured of the thematic significance of the iconic stairway he returns to it several times instead of using it to bookmark the ascent and descent of the character but then it spoils that moment in the trailer anyway. And the less said about the choice of music to accompany that scene the better. It’s one of a number of archly adolescent edge-lord choices that are calculated to shock and offend because there’s an insecurity running through the entire film that if it’s not being shocking and/ or offensive, what’s the point of it all?
To counterbalance the mediocrity elsewhere in the film, Phillips relies on Joaquin Phoenix to do a lot of heavy lifting and, thankfully, his distorted skeletal frame is more than up to the task. Phoenix delivers a typically magnificent performance, imbuing Arthur with a myriad of complex and conflicting impulses and shifting mercurially from downtrodden victim to vengeful psychopath with breath-taking seamlessness, but his efforts are in service of a screenplay which forces him to push hard at every single moment to give it some significance.
If he had a mind to, Todd Phillips could have made a serious, gritty film about how society treats and neglects its most vulnerable members but he was content to be a milquetoast Martin Scorsese and cover up his shortcoming by slapping a recognisable brand name across the script. Sadly, that brand recognition not only brings with it the film’s most half-baked and unnecessary elements – the Wayne family, yes all of them and that goddamn alleyway again – but also actively works against everything Phoenix is trying to do. If this had just been a film about a vulnerable man’s descent into madness thanks to a cruel and callous social order, Phoenix’s performance would have gradually unveiled itself but because we know it’s about the Joker (but maybe not the Joker?) and we know he’s going to become the Joker, we’re simply waiting on that to happen.
Joker has moments, to be sure, where it transcends its shortcomings – which include an intrusive and oppressively insistent score – but they’re frustratingly infrequent in a film which seems lazily content to let its leading man do all the hard work and rest on the carefully cultivated reputation for controversy and violence which has been artfully manufactured but is wholly undeserved. Shallow, predictable and occasionally surprisingly dull, this is no cinematic game-changer or genre-defining watershed, it’s just another movie – and not a particularly good one at that.