The zeitgeist surrounding Todd Phillips’ Joker seems like it has reached a fever pitch. Critics and fans are furiously digging trenches over if this film is good or bad, a cautionary tale or evil incarnate, and it seems poised to spark that civil war that certain people keep tweeting about. Hell, the Army and FBI have even had to weigh in on if it’s safe to even see the film, out of fear that the incel Neo-Nazis that this film hopes to explain may take up arms inside the theater as one did seven years ago. It’s been decades since a film launched this level of anger and fear amongst filmgoers, and yet, amongst all the arguing, acclaiming, prognosticating, and awards-giving, there seems to be a simple question forgotten at the heart of this whole kerfuffle: is Joker, a gritty retelling of the infamous Batman villain’s origin, really worth all this debate? The answer, as it turns out, is no: while Joker has some promise and some worthwhile filmmaking, it is neither good nor bad enough to warrant the reaction it has received, in any way shape or form.
Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) has lived a miserable life. As the Gotham City of the 1980s devolves further into crime, corruption, and filth (the film opens on Day 18 of a garbage strike), Arthur struggles to find work as a stand-up comedian, resorting to spending his days as a rent-a-clown for failing businesses and children’s hospitals. When he’s not dancing on the street corner getting beaten by passersby, hoodlums, and literal children, Arthur tries to receive treatment from his put-upon social worker (Sharon Washington) for a variety of mental illnesses and depressions (he has an uncontrollable laugh that manifests at inopportune times) before returning home to care for his sick mother, Penny (Frances Conroy). The two ailing Flecks try to keep spirits up with a variety of activities, including Penny’s recollections of working for the great Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) years before, Arthur’s quest to woo his lovely neighbor Sophie (Zazie Beetz), and their shared love of late night talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro). However, one night, after yet another disappointment, Arthur snaps and brutally murders three douchey Wayne Enterprises workers harassing him on the subway. With his life already beyond the point of salvation, Arthur hands himself over to the madness, slowly becoming the Clown Prince of Crime.
Much of the issues with the film, and the controversies surrounding it, focus on the depiction of The Joker as a character – and for the most part, I agree with the cynics. The argument swirling around this film focuses on the claim that “It’s supposed to be a 70s movie! Those are supposed to be dark and gritty and about the decay of society!” And these arguments are true. But the issue here is not “Joker is just like a 70s movie.” The issue is “Joker doesn’t understand why those 70s movies worked.” Let’s use three classics as an example: A Clockwork Orange, Dog Day Afternoon, and Taxi Driver. In A Clockwork Orange, we witness protagonist (not hero) Alex DeLarge as he navigates the world raping, murdering, and torturing. But the film never takes his side. No, it merely uses him as a pawn to explore two opposing political factions and how their bickering and personal evil agendas allow people like Alex to live free. In Dog Day Afternoon, the decaying society forces Pacino’s Sonny to rob the bank, slowly winning over a rebelling crowd in the face of a corrupt government and police force. However, Sonny doesn’t win over the crowd through evil or excessive means. He wins them over through, shockingly enough, empathy – he’s robbing the bank to support his trans girlfriend’s surgery, he treats the hostages with so much respect they don’t want to leave his company, and he refuses to surrender because he knows the police will just abuse him in the prison system. And in my least favorite example on this list, Taxi Driver, the entire point of the film is that Travis Bickle is a laughably lame loser, incapable of any form of love or compassion, who only becomes a hero when he fails his way into it – a critique of a society who could worship such a racist, sexist assh*le. Scorsese failed in his quest, as most moviegoers view Bickle and his pathetic “You talkin’ to me” scene as badass, but at least the filmmakers were aware of the film’s message. Joker never takes enough of a stand in terms of its character. He is not as likable as Sonny. He’s too rewarded to be Alex. And he’s too cool to be Travis Bickle. It’s easy to empathize with him – after all, as Alan Moore famously wrote all those years ago, “All it takes is one bad day.” But even the cynical Moore knew that good people existed, willing to defy the “one bad day” ethos. This film offers no such warmth or intelligence.
Of course, Phillips didn’t just want to make a straightforward 70s-esque character study. No, like any modern douchebag muttering to themselves, “I was born in the wrong generation,” Phillips makes it clear from the opening, when he slaps the old-school Warner Brothers logo in front of the film, that he not only believes he is capable of making such a masterpiece, but that his “edgier sensibilities” allow him to surpass these legendary works. At first, his little “homages” appear cute and thoughtful – the trash-filled, rat-infested streets immediately call to mind Taxi Driver’s “city on fire” setting, and Arthur’s peeling wallpaper should bring to mind Raskolnikov’s dilapidated room in Crime and Punishment, for my literary-minded readers. However, it becomes clear within the first fifteen minutes just how far Phillips is willing to take his references. As mentioned above, Arthur is obsessed with a late night comedian named Murray Franklin. This alone would qualify as an homage to Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy. However, when Franklin is introduced with almost verbatim dialogue from the opening of Comedy, you start to wonder, “Wait, is Phillips just stealing from Scorsese and calling it his own film?” You’ll have your answer when Arthur imagines himself having a one-on-one conversation with Franklin, a literal theft from the 80s classic’s plot. And just in case you needed icing on this stolen cake, Franklin is played by Robert De Niro, star of – you guessed it – The King of Comedy. By the time you reach the film’s final fifteen minutes, when it throws in a shot-for-shot remake of the final scene from Sidney Lumet’s masterpiece Network, you are willing to call this the most egregious case of embezzlement this side of Gus van Sant’s Psycho.
However, above all else, the reason that Joker misses the point of these films is not that he just wants to lazily steal from them – it’s that he doesn’t understand them on a fundamental, moral level. The point of the 70s New Hollywood movement is that the people were united as one front against a government that murdered people at will, ignored their plights with conspiracies like Watergate, and trained killers like John Rambo and Travis Bickle to murder with extreme prejudice before haphazardly returning them to a broken society. The only time the streets of New York were ever presented as wholeheartedly sick and corrupt were through the eyes of racists – who viewed blacks and immigrants as an “infestation” – and minorities – who were mostly abused by a racist system surrounding them. Joker makes it clear that Phillips not only viewed 70s society through the eyes of the protagonist; he did so at face value. It’s like he assumed Travis Bickle and Rupert Pupkin’s sick fantasies were, in fact, reality. People on buses are rude for no reason. People look for the simplest excuse to commit murder and arson. And in the most hilariously obnoxious example, the opening scene depicts Arthur getting mugged by a group of children for a sign. It’s a gross misunderstanding of what made New Hollywood so great, and it shows just how shallow a film historian Phillips is. Ironically, despite Phillips’ claims that he didn’t want to follow the comics at all, it is the nods to graphic novel lore that work best in this gritty setting. There are several allusions to the fact that we, the audience, will never find out which characters are telling Arthur the truth and which are lying, creating a loose sense of honesty that mirrors the Joker’s confusion in the iconic The Killing Joke (the only Batman comic to explore Joker’s past, and the first to paint him somewhat sympathetically – deep down, below the murdering). And while the film’s finale would much rather you draw real-world allusions from Christine Chubbuck, Alison Parker, and Adam Ward, or even assume it’s ripping off Network again, keen-eyed comic book fans will recognize the ending as a near-shot-for-shot recreation of a similar moment from The Dark Knight Returns. It’s moments like these that show what Phillips could have done if he’d had his head a little more removed from his own ass and just stuck to telling a good story.
In fact, Phillips’ greatest failure in understanding these films’ morality comes in his portrayal of Joker’s actions as a whole. I do believe, at his core, Phillips wanted to make, and believed he was making, a cautionary tale. On some level, Joker is a story about what happens when behavioral problems and severe mental illness are ignored for too long, and warning signs are shunted, ultimately causing a downfall and widespread destruction. However, there are a few key problems with that reading. For starters, if Phillips wanted to portray these events as tragedy, why then did he choose to create such a dour, ominous score from the jump, as if the main thrust were not a good man gone bad, but an ominous boogeyman lurking in the shadows? However, the issue with this reading goes deeper; despite its attempt to portray Arthur as evil, all of his crimes and murders are, honestly, considered rather good. When he first murders the Wayne Enterprises employees, dressed up as Wall Street yuppies, they are drunk, boorish assh*les harassing an innocent woman before beating on poor Arthur because he’s different (they also sing “Send In The Clowns” by Stephen Sondheim nearly in its entirety, which is a story for another time). They’re pretty much begging for death from the moment they step onscreen. Things get murkier once the men are dead, however. As it turns out, the pompous, preening Thomas Wayne goes on television in response, in a sequence that disgustingly mirrors a certain New Yorker’s Central Park Five comments, and condemns the murders as “just a bunch of punk clowns jealous of our wealth because they don’t want to work for it.” It’s the perfect ultra-wealthy, 80s-era boogeyman, and it inspires the poor to rise up against the powerful to take back their city. I could go off on why this is a lazy, dangerous angle for a litany of reasons, but first and foremost is it frames Arthur’s actions, from now until the end of the film, as heroic. He gets propped up by people telling him, “They don’t give a sh*t about you or me,” and “I think the guy who did it is a hero.” It’s like the film wants to frame Travis Bickle’s psychosis with Sonny Wortzik’s likability and inspirational messaging. It’s ultimately just frustrating – the film had so many great themes to choose from, including an important message about budget cuts preventing Arthur from getting the help he so clearly needed, and yet most of these were shunted and ignored in favor of glorifying his immoral actions. I’d be disgusted if I weren’t so frustrated.
These jumbled themes and thefts are made increasingly frustrating when you look at the film’s production – with a few glaring exceptions, the film is, admittedly, competently made. There’s a really haunting visual motif where Arthur is forced to finish his long, depressing days by climbing an impossibly tall flight of stairs to reach his apartment in the projects. It adds to the sense of brokenness and hardship, and my only regret is the film wisely, but frustratingly, only shows him descending the staircase when he becomes The Joker, which implies a sense of freedom in the persona. The cinematography also is impeccable from scene to scene – one of my favorite shots from any film this year is a painted white face splattered with a crisp red splash of blood across it. It is a poignant visual. And in one of the film’s best scenes, the Wall Street Subway Murders, Phillips uses the editing, sound, lighting, and cinematography to create a tense, overloading sensation that escalates to violence. The sequence is almost impossible to hear due to the clacking subway wheels, forcing the characters to barely-audibly shout over them, while the lights flicker on-and-off in a freakishly hellish display. The sequence works as sensory overload, forcing the viewer on-edge until the inevitable moment of bloodshed explodes onto the screen. It’s a creepy, intense scene, ridiculous in some of its execution, but well performed nonetheless. The film also utilizes a creative, sometimes-frustrating narrative involving reality vs. fantasy. Occasionally, the divide between the two is ridiculously infuriating; other times, it passably works, such as a stand-up performance drowned out by Jimmy Durante’s “Smile.” And sometimes, the fantasy stuff creates jaw-dropping magic, including a fantastic Act II finale that still has me reeling. In fact, my only complaint about Phillips’ technical direction is his inability to cut – there are several sequences that go on for far too long, lingering on “symbolic” moments that become obvious and ostentatious after five seconds of their five-minute runtime. These include a long pause on Arthur hiding in a refrigerator for…reasons…and a PROLONGED sequence of his rehearsing shaking hands with Murray Franklin for the first time (this scene feels like it’s an hour long). For all the film’s litany of problems, its technical aspects do not rank among them.
Now, there is something rather distressing about the film that, as a student of criticism, I have to bring up. While the film never wholeheartedly portrays The Joker as someone to admire (at least not explicitly), it does relish in his behavior in some rather disturbing ways. And while study after study has proven that there is zero correlation between violence in film and real-world violence (indeed, most studies on the subject find sporting events cause great upticks of violent tendencies than film and video games), there is a real problem amongst the Neo-Nazi/incel community idolizing figures such as Travis Bickle, Tyler Durden, and Tony Montana, despite their pathetic, evil nature. None of this matters in terms of my overall critique of the film – as a critic, my job is solely to report on if the film is good or not, not to solve real world problems. That being said, it is also the job of the critic to raise these concerns, whether or not he or she takes umbrage with them. And on this note, I want to address one scene in particular (without spoilers, so you don’t have to frantically scroll past). During the film’s final act, there is a ramping up of tension, and a monologue expressing ideals that, were they not written by Phillips, Scott Silver, and probably Phoenix himself, could come directly out of a domestic terrorist’s manifesto. Instead of feeling good, or bad, or even shocked, this sequence left me feeling sick. It was far too real, far too incel-friendly, and far too disturbing to fully comprehend. However, maybe that’s the point. The goal of the finale is to show what has happened to Arthur’s mind, in the most disturbing and awful of ways, and we as an audience are forced to confront what we’ve sympathized with up to this point. Technically speaking, despite my outright disgust, the film accomplished that mission. I do believe this would not have been an issue if the film had stuck the landing effectively, as opposed to glorifying The Joker for extended periods of time, this sequence would have felt more earned. At the end of the day, I respect the effort to push me past my comfort zone, I just wish it had been handled with a little more tact and respect.
Now, as we move into the performances, we’re going to have to start with Joaquin Phoenix, because that is where the film lives and dies. For a good portion of the film, it may be difficult to empathize with Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck – unlike other films where the character’s devolution starts from a place we can relate to, it is clear from the very first shot of Phoenix’s pained, destroyed face that he is already far beyond our comprehension abilities. That said, it is hard to deny the sheer physical and psychological performance that Phoenix is displaying for the audience. He carries his way-too-thin body with little care, resulting in multiple close-ups of his beaten, emaciated frame. When he engages in his laughing fits, you actually can feel him laughing until he physically hurts himself, jarring the viewer each and every time. And whenever he’s given real material to chew on, including a few solid monologues and a phenomenal confrontation with Thomas Wayne, it stands out as some of the best work of the film. Meanwhile, Phoenix adds in little flourishes and details that you just know he came up with himself, from Arthur’s running to his inability to spell correctly. Now, not every decision Phoenix makes is the right one. For example, considering the role is supposed to be an “homage” to Rupert Pupkin, it is odd that Phoenix portrays his character so lovingly, as opposed to the cringe-worthy, creepy tension of the former. And I’ll never be onboard with the insanely terrible decision to have Arthur sporadically, and oftentimes nonsensically, break into dance – it never works for dramatic effect, and it never adds to the character, so why bother? But these are just small nitpicks out of an otherwise delicious performance. While it is, in many ways, just a lesser version of his work in The Master, it is remarkable work nonetheless, and I remain impressed with his incredible talent.
In terms of the other performances, it is honestly rather odd how little screentime some of these “supporting” actors have. The only two with substantial roles are Conroy, who portrays Penny Fleck with neurotic flashes that come close to genius, but never fully, and De Niro, whose Murray Franklin is requires as much effort as De Niro’s work as Robert Mueller on Saturday Night Live (he’s much better and more committed here, though). Zazie Beetz is phenomenal in the little screentime she has as Sophie Dumond, Arthur’s love interest, but is somehow given less to do than even Cybill Shepherd in Taxi Driver. I’m not so much mad at the performance as I am at the writers for short-shafting her so terribly. Marc Maron and Brian Tyree Henry have been hyped up in the film’s promotional materials, but their work equally amounts to glorified cameos. The same goes for Bill Camp and Shea Whigham, who portray Gotham City cops and fit the mold perfectly, despite their short appearances. Glenn Fleshler continues a great run of character acting work as an opportunistic rival clown named Randall. And in the film’s best performance outside of Phoenix, Brett Cullen gives his own unique spin to the iconic Thomas Wayne. While this variation of the future Batman’s father is far different from his comic book counterpart, Cullen never plays the role as a cartoon. He gives the role a proper sheen of upper crust assh*lery that fits the time period and performance perfectly, and makes the character stand out whenever he’s onscreen. It almost makes me wish there was more of him in the final film.
Near the end of the film, Arthur gives an impassioned, obnoxious speech that capstones with the declaration, “You know, comedy is subjective, just like what’s right or wrong.” It was in that moment I realized that Phillips, to a certain extent, saw himself in the infamous character, and it is the moment the film went wrong. He threw his entire ego and outrage onto the screen without putting any thought into what it all means. Joker is no different than any film school arthouse douchebag’s senior thesis: it’s clearly modeled on the 70s auteur theory, and pays blatant homage to Scorsese throughout, but it wholeheartedly lacks the moral vision and divine clarity that made those films so great. Hell, I’d bet if you gave this film to a fresh-faced film bro with the exact same budget, you could get the exact same movie. There’s something interesting at the heart of Joker. It could even have been a great movie. But at the end of the day, it’s just another “fine” film swimming in a pool of desperate mediocrity.