Film Review: Joker
Toxic Fandom and Controversy can’t Hide the Elevated Mediocrity of Joker
Joker, director Todd Phillips’ long-awaited - and controversial - take on the Clown Prince of Crime, is a prime example of a film whose architecture outstrips its narrative. Even with Joaquin Phoenix’s no-holds-barred performance, Hildur Guðnadóttir’s thunderous score, and Lawrence Sher’s stunning cinematography, Joker is nothing more than a shallow homunculus of better films. Mild spoilers ahead…
Todd Phillips is the consummate hype man. Situated to take perfect advantage of the maelstrom of handwringing that has permeated the public consciousness ever since it won the Golden Lion at Venice, Joker has seized the cinematic zeitgeist in a way that no other film has in quite some time. Amidst a toxic fandom whose stubborn ferocity is matched only by its unwavering myopia, a growing concern for Arthur Fleck inspired incel violence, and Phillips’ own take on “woke” culture, the discourse surrounding Joker is deafening and inescapable. Admirably enough, the director of The Hangover trilogy has crafted a chameleon of a canvas rife for rampant projection: Many can and will hail Joker as a masterpiece, while others will condemn it as a reprobate enabler of white loner violence. It is however - in the spirit of measured reflection - important to divorce the fevered fist-waving from the actual film and its messaging, which unfortunately, don’t amount to much. In the end, it is a film worthy of neither blind exaltation nor watchdog fear-mongering - it simply isn’t significant enough to warrant it. Joker wears its influences from the likes of Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy on its rust-orange sleeve, but where Martin Scorsese constructs cinematic monuments, Phillips is stuck with Duplo blocks, fiddling with a delusion of self-importance.
However, that doesn’t mean that there’s nothing to love about Joker - far from it. In fact, much of the architecture surrounding the film is routinely magnificent. Cellist Hildur Guðnadóttir’s haunting score flits in and out of the picture, a cacophony of fractured strings and electronic halldorophone that is all but a shoe-in for a Best Original Score nomination at the Academy Awards next year. And Lawrence Sher’s cinematography is nothing short of intoxicating, taking full artistic advantage of Phillips’ grimy vision for Gotham City as well as Joaquin Phoenix’s twisted physical performance. Unfortunately, much of this structural integrity works only in service of a glib and reductive “kick the shaggy dog” narrative, a script that cherry-picks shades of poignancy from better films as indulgent homage. Joker’s scenes of shocking violence instantly recall the spirit of Travis Bickle, but with none of the weight of Taxi Driver; its thread of stargazing and idolatry recall the shadow of Rupert Pupkin, but with none of the nuance of The King of Comedy.
“In the end, [Joker] is a film worthy of neither blind exaltation nor watchdog fear-mongering - it simply isn’t significant enough to warrant it.”
Joker centers around Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a lonely and damaged individual that works as a freelance clown. Living alone in a graying apartment with his sick mother (Frances Conroy), Fleck endures a litany of iniquities that seemingly never ceases: He’s chased down and beaten by a gang of hooligans, seen as a freak and outcast by the community, and eventually fired from his job. Suffering from a tic that might be the result of childhood abuse, Arthur laughs uncontrollably, often at the most inopportune of times. When a confrontation with some Wayne Enterprises finance bros on the subway leads to an inevitable act of harrowing violence, it sends him unraveling, inadvertently turning him into an anonymous figurehead for a deteriorating Gotham City’s “eat the rich” movement.
There’s no doubt that there’s a sinister power behind Joaquin Phoenix’s immersive performance: a wiry transformation on the level of Christian Bale’s Trevor Reznik in The Machinist. A contortionist and an angular bag of bones, Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck is visually iconic and emotionally raw, but Joker’s shallow script holds him back. Typically a masterful shapeshifter who disappears into his roles, Phoenix is saddled with on-the-nose dialogue that cheapens the narrative. “I used to think my life was a tragedy, but now I realize it’s a fucking comedy,” Fleck states at one point. It’s a clunker of a line, made palatable only through the seasoned actor’s sheer force of will. And later - as if Todd Phillips’ and screenwriter Scott Silver’s punchline needed an extra sledgehammer to execute its coup-de-grace - we get: “What do you get when you cross a mentally-ill loner with a society that abandons him and treats him like trash? I’ll tell you what you get! You get what you fucking deserve!” The film wants to say something about mental illness, but there’s nothing underneath, no matter how much research went into Fleck’s pseudobulbar affect. The actor who so skillfully evaporated into gems like Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master and Lynne Ramsay’s equally violent but vastly more profound You Were Never Really Here still exists in Joker, he just has to wade through a stilted narrative to show his expressive face.
The film’s purported meditation on class and the state of society is equally muddled. Phillips obviously intends for Arthur’s isolation and turn to violence to stem from a laundry list of injustices - including the class divide, the implosion of modern civility, bureaucratic corruption, and a bevy of other reasons - but Joker doesn’t have the narrative economy to tackle even one of these ideas, let alone all of them. Arthur, who is supposedly the symbol of Gotham’s so-called revolution, doesn’t even share the movement’s nascent ideology until late in the game, and even then, he only shruggingly accepts the mantle out of convenience. In addition, Joker’s threadbare ties to the Batman mythos is at most an afterthought, which only serves to undermine the film’s comic book roots. Thomas and Martha Wayne, little Bruce, and Alfred Pennyworth all make appearances, but only as fleeting reconfigurations into effigies of the oppressive elite.
Todd Phillips, with Joker, has proven himself to be capable of much more than the juvenile bacchanals of The Hangover, Due Date, and War Dogs, but his interpretation of the Clown Prince of Crime is a misguided one. With gorgeous cinematography, a resounding soundtrack, and an attention-grabbing performance from Joaquin Phoenix, the film props up a veneer of depth and gravitas, but in the end is just a shallow imitation of its influences. One could even argue that Joker is a misnomer, a film fully severed from its main character’s foundation. It’s fully understandable that Phillips wants Arthur Fleck to be his own man, but without Heath Ledger’s anarchy, Mark Hamill’s theatricality, Jack Nicholson’s sadism, or Cesar Romero’s camp, there’s no identity for this clown to cling to other than another man with a loaded gun, lashing out at the society around him.