Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Robert DeNiro, Zazie Beetz
Written by Todd Phillips, Scott Silver
Directed by Todd Phillips
The stakes were pretty high for me stepping into Todd Phillips’ Joker, fearing the discourse more than the film itself. The trailers suggested we were getting a sympathetic story about a “down and out” shlub, suffering from a gamut of mental illnesses who ultimately turns violent. Though I was pleasantly surprised to not see the film endorsing this behaviour, at least that would have made it about something.
There are two ways to analyze this film; as a crime drama and as a Joker story.
As a Crime Drama
It’s a hollow collection of scenes reaching so hard towards depth. Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is a tragic “nobody” in a garbage-filled Gotham that feels like the portrayal of New York City we saw in 1990’s films. He plugs away at his low paying job as a clown for hire, cares for his decrepit mother, is beaten up by kids and shit on at work, and, oh yeah, he is mentally ill. Arthur visits a social worker to collect his pills, but she really doesn’t seem to care and budget cuts remove his access to these services eventually. He is down and out.
But this isn’t enough to really show he’s the butt of the joke. Arthur is obsessed with stand-up comedy, and the only thing that brings him joy is the host of a late-night show, Murray Franklin (Robert DeNiro) who is the only sympathetic character of the bunch. What’s more tragic for the poor tragic Fleck? He has a condition; a condition that makes him laugh at inappropriate times (something that played better in Trial & Error) and tends to come out when he’s nervous, like, for instance, on stage at a comedy club.
Eventually, Arthur learns to fight back, finding a rush in executing some bullies on the subway. Some rich bullies, bullies who work for the mythical Wayne family, representing the richest of the rich in the down and out Gotham. Here is where the movie starts to dance with theme. The subway clown becomes a symbol of the proletariat, eat the rich and all that, accidentally inspiring an uprising. When his social services are cut off, he descends deeper into madness, showcasing dark thoughts on mental illness and access to healthcare. But the movie is never really about any of these things. They pop in and out of the narrative to make for cool shots of newspaper headlines, and throwaway TV segments. They never amount to anything, and the film certainly isn’t about them.
It’s hard to decipher what the film is about at all. There are peppered in twists and turns that are so unearned, it doesn’t matter how shocking they are. There is unearned tension that amounts in slow motion dimly lit scenes with music more brooding than the characters having not a lick of real tension which makes the film exhausting. The characters don’t behave consistently, key story beats are nonsensical and the film doesn’t seem to care. There are major moments screaming to be nitpicked that make up such important rising actions that it’s difficult to follow them or care. It’s hard to muster if it is the film choosing style over substance or actively taking a stab at substance and missing the major artery.
The only thing this movie appears to be about is Arthur being deranged. He dances weirdly, he isn’t spooked by death, he is manic, and he can’t be trusted. Seeing Zazie Beetz and Frances Conroy could have been exciting, but the WOC becomes less than window dressing and Frances plainly delivers some boring lines just beef up Arthur’s descent to madness.
It’s mean. It’s mean to the mentally ill and it’s mean to those who help them, it’s mean to the rich and mean to the poor, mean to the good and mean to the evil. Though the people of Gotham being mean to Arthur set off his violence, the film is far meaner to him than the entire laughing audience of the Murray Franklin Show.
Ultimately, as a drama, the film doesn’t amount to anything. It is forgettable. It grazes by themes, but doesn’t say anything, and the moments meant to be striking fall flat beside the imagery.
That’s what it has. Excellent imagery. It’s dark, painted with mustard yellow, turquoise, and a dried blood shade of red. Every shot is gorgeous and well thought out in a specific aesthetic you imagine will pop up as commonly used banner photos and posters on dorm room walls. The costume and makeup design come from true storytellers. Arthur in plain clothes is sometimes marked with smears of unremoved white face paint. His clothes appear throughout as forgettable outfits, which he ultimately puts together into his final Joker form. The laughing clown in is buried there in this poorly executed crime drama.
As a Joker Story
Though this movie purports to rise above the traditional comic book adaptation and isn’t committed to lore, at the end of the day, it is a comic book movie. It’s a Joker origin story and doesn’t completely remove itself from the Batman universe. Not at all.
The film suffers from what most non-MCU adaptations have; steeping the lore in realism and deciding to steer towards dark and gritty. This isn’t the clownly villain who spits quips while slaying, he is a mentally ill and deranged loser who finally snaps. The Wayne family isn’t a bevy of rich philanthropists; Thomas Wayne is a power-hungry rich man who spits down at the impoverished masses of Gotham. Joker doesn’t just laugh at the slaughter, he has a condition that forces him to laugh, uncomfortably and while in pain, at uncomfortable times.
The Joker has taken many forms over time. From his original iteration created by Finger, Kane, and Robinson, to the comedic version he morphed into in the 1950s, back to his darker self in the 1970s. Since, he has been cartoony, terrifying, often both, and portrayed on screen in completely different yet equally incredible ways. To reduce Joker to a solitary vision and version is shallow, and I welcome a new adaptation of the character, even if I tire of the “gritty” of it all. So this spin on the Clown Prince of Crime was not unwelcome; his appearance was beautiful and managed to give us something brand new without losing sight of the signature white face paint and red lips.
Joker has had numerous origins in lore, but what has remained consistent are two important factors; he is never sympathetic and he is always obsessed with Batman. I could spend time analyzing if this was a satisfactory origin for the character, but it would be to no end. It was fine, and if it wasn’t for some clunky Wayne references, it wouldn’t be about any Joker we know at all. He does, however, remain unsympathetic (contrary to what I had feared from the trailers) and there is set up for him to be obsessed with the bat, though with limited payoff and from clunkily jammed in elements.
There are two key moments where I felt like I was really looking at the Joker. After a kill, Arthur toys with his next potential victim, throwing a “boo” style scare at an old colleague whom he tells to scamper off. It’s a perfect moment of a deranged killer laughing in the face of pure terror while painted in the blood of a victim. Unfortunately, the moment is immediately dampened by a cheap shot joke to be expected from the creator of The Hangover. Another moment, I’ll spare you for freshness, paints the picture of Joker as a lover of chaos. Despite itself, the film does dance with some key elements that make up the character.
What’s most unfortunate is how forced the Joker elements feel. The crime drama does feel inspired by the comic books it leans on, but it takes so many dance steps away from there, that the lore elements brought back in don’t feel organic.
Phoenix’s performance is the standout of the film. The story starts and finishes with him, resting on his point of view, placing importance on his perspective of the events over the events themselves. It’s the only memorable performance of the movie, and this appears purposeful because his view of the world is all that matters. He brings an incredible physicality to the role, managing to come off as scary and pathetic just by striking a pose that Phillips’ camera dances around. The long shots of his sprinting (he has great hustle) and his manic dancing are a stunning interaction of Phoenix’s thoughtful acting and the well-placed camera. Though I am wary of the acting choice to lean into an undefined mental illness or intellectual disability to showcase ‘deranged,’ he does the most with what he is given and creates a striking version of the character.
What it boils down to is that this film isn’t great at being a crime drama nor a Joker movie. It lands on some key character elements but gets too bogged down by thoughtless Batman lore. As a crime drama, it falls flat, playing poorly thought out story beats that are frankly, nonsense, forcing the film to lean on the “unreliable narrator” cliché attached to Joker by those who wanted to accept The Killing Joke as canon.
The most scathing indictment I can give this film is that I didn’t feel much. It is forgettable and kind of pointless and sparked almost no emotion from me, a person who once wept at a clip of Mark Hamill laughing, didn’t sleep for days after a new Joker story dropped, and cried when leafing through Joker quotes to pick one for my tattoo.
Though far from perfect, Joker is a beautiful watch that inspires hope for one-off comic book stories, and a refreshing change from the cinematic universe model. It’s an ambitious tale, not bound by canon or tone, something I hope to see again, but with more competence. As the Joker says in The Dark Knight, “It’s finally here, isn’t it? The moment we’ve both dreamed about! Oh, don’t tell me you’re gonna fall asleep before we finish.”