Joker: A brilliant Joaquin Phoenix performance fails to redeem this confused, shallow origin story

Aditya Mani Jha

Oct 12, 2019 17:28:58 IST

In one of the most macabre scenes from the animated film The Killing Joke (2016), based on Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s graphic novel of the same name, we see the Joker (Mark Hamill, still the most iconic Joker of all time) putting on a song-and-dance for his captive, Commissioner James Gordon (Ray Wise), at an abandoned circus. Having shot his daughter Barbara (aka Batgirl), permanently damaging her spine, the Clown Prince now uses graphic images of her nude, bleeding body to torture Gordon. The lyrics, meanwhile, are delightfully over-the-top; classic Joker stuff, really.

“When the world is full of care, and every headline screams despair/ When all is war, rape, starvation and life is vile/ There’s a certain thing I do, which I shall pass along to you/ That’s always guaranteed to make me smile!/ I go loo-o-o-ny, like a light-bulb-battered-bug!/ Simply loo-o-o-ny, sometimes foam and chew the rug/ Mister life is swell, in a padded cell/ You can chase the blues away/ You can trade in your gloom for a rubber room, and injections twice a day!”

The Joker’s song — and the accompanying visuals — added up to a scene darker and more twisted than anything we’ve seen in the live-action Batman films of the last three decades. And yet, it’s an undeniably funny sequence, as Hamill gleefully hams it up, his showmanship adding that extra zing to the performance.

 Joker: A brilliant Joaquin Phoenix performance fails to redeem this confused, shallow origin story

Posters for Todd Phillips' Joker. Images via Twitter/@jokermovie

This is just one reason why Todd Philips’s Joker, starring Joaquin Phoenix, was such a disappointment, all things considered. It mistakes grim cheerlessness for ‘grit’, non-sequiturs for edginess, and a sophomoric lack of political engagement with ‘neutrality’ (or worse, ‘telling uncomfortable truths’). Phoenix’s performance, while impressive, does little to paper over a thin, largely derivative screenplay that desperately seeks to distance itself from the 21st century comicbook film template — but sacrifices narrative coherence while pursuing this.

Joker is the story of how Arthur Fleck (Phoenix), a failed Gotham City stand-up comedian with a lifelong history of mental illness, becomes the titular super-villain. He lives with his ailing mother Penny (Frances Conroy), who’s obsessed with Murray Franklin (Robert de Niro) a talk show host on local TV. Fleck has a neurological condition wherein he involuntarily bursts into laughter, especially during stressful moments. Phoenix gets these bits spot-on. His performance is above all a feat of physical acting, as he chokes on his laughter and one is never quite sure where he stands on the laughing-crying spectrum.

[spoilers ahead]

Fleck, who makes a living as a party clown when we first meet him, is having a very tough week. His duplicitous colleague Randall (Glenn Fleshler) first gives him a gun (after a group of kids jump him, beating him up and running off with the sale signboard he was working with), and then lies to their boss about it, getting Arthur fired. Social Services pulls the plug on his free therapy/medications. Finally, he is beaten up by a trio of inebriated Wall Street businessmen who work for Wayne Enterprises — and ends up shooting them, the first two in self-defense, and the third out of newfound malevolence. This murderous act and its very public aftermath unlock something inside of Fleck. As he later says, for the first time in his life, he’s sure that he exists, that people are beginning to notice him.

Joker tries to be too many things at once

While Phillips is reluctant to outright tell us the timeline we’re dealing with here (through other period details like costume design and decor, we’re reasonably sure that this is late 70s or early 80s New York), he is strangely excessive while channelising the anchor he truly wants for this narrative — the Martin Scorsese/Robert de Niro classics Taxi Driver (1976) and The King of Comedy (1983). Fleck’s personal journal, which acts as a diary as well as a joke-book, is a dead ringer for Travis Bickle’s journal from Taxi Driver, right down to the handwriting. De Niro’s casting as talk show host Murray Franklin, meanwhile, reverses the dynamic from The King of Comedy, where his character Rupert Pupkin is obsessed with a TV host (Jerry Lewis).

Phillips spends a significant amount of time and close-up shots to establish connections with both of these masterpieces. But his story simply lacks the nuance or the world-building nous of either movie, which is why these references come across as single-tone; mere window dressing that has overstayed its welcome. Both Bickle and Pupkin were characters who responded to certain specific neuroses with acts of violence — the catharsis achieved by their stories was possible because Scorsese was so very good at making the audience live inside these men’s heads, making them understand the twisted logic that motivated them. Phillips, by comparison, indulges in the kind of wafer-thin pastiche that feels like it’d be more at home in an out-and-out parody, as opposed to the super-grim tonality he’s aiming for here.

A similar callousness marks the director’s understanding of real-world politics. Several critics have praised Joker for being closer to real-world events than your average Marvel film. This is a half-truth at best, one that betrays a narrow understanding of the many, many ways in which art distills political truths. On the surface, it appears as though Phillips has tethered Arthur Fleck’s story to larger societal movements — Fleck is hailed as a bit of a proletarian hero after his subway murder of three Wayne Enterprises businessmen, for example (the murder itself is inspired from the Bernhard Goetz shooting from 1984). We see people with clown masks in the streets, urging others to follow Fleck’s lead and eat the rich, so to speak.

But how did Gotham reach this point of no return, where one heinous act is enough to empower the mobs? What were the structures that corroded people’s faith to this extent?

Almost all of the people who antagonise Fleck initially (apart from the white men he actually kills), from his State-sponsored doctor to the street gang that jumps him in the first scene, are brown or black — is this detail a dog-whistle or just happenstance? How is race tied up with the unrest that Gotham faces? Phillips does not or would rather not answer these questions and his film suffers for it. An out-and-out Marvel caper like Thor: Ragnarok, in comparison, does a wonderful job of talking about imperialism and immigration. And it does so without breaking the allegorical, fairy-tale-on-speed mode that Marvel is known for.

Contrary to popular belief, the various iterations of the Joker have represented certain specific socio-political identities, down the years. Heath Ledger and Christopher Nolan gave us “an agent of chaos”, an anarchist hell-bent on proving that societal rules are “a bad joke, abandoned at the first sign of trouble”. Jack Nicholson and Tim Burton gave us the kind of dapper, old-school, top-hat-wearing gangster that Sinatra might have hung out with. Even Frank Miller, for all his odious, xenophobic politics, was very clear about the Joker’s characterisation in The Dark Night Returns — according to Miller, the Clown Prince was a byproduct of what he perceived as left-wing softness on crime, aided and abetted by a TV-fuelled culture that fed on schmaltzy redemption stories, pop psychology and fanciful ‘true crime’ narratives.

What does Phillips’s Joker want? Who does he represent, if at all?

A still from Joker.

What are his fears and motivations, apart from confronting Murray Franklin, the object of his mother’s obsession? Your guess is as good as mine, because Joker’s screenplay is not interested in anything other than knee-jerk emotions. Phillips would rather deal in diffuse rage and bursts of balletic violence than have his characters say one sincere, heartfelt thing (the closest that Phoenix comes is late into the second half, and even there, the moment becomes a comedic epilogue to perhaps his most brutal murder).

All of this might have passed muster still, because of Phoenix’s sheer screen presence — had it not been for the film’s supremely irresponsible last half-hour. Here, Phillips does something truly shameful, bordering on dangerous. For much of the first half, we’re shown glimpses of Gotham’s anti-rich movement, very clearly meant as an allegory for real-world social justice movements like Antifa or Occupy. And now, as Fleck comes into his own as the dancing, swaggering Joker, Gotham’s protestors go off the rails completely, hailing Fleck as their hero, even attacking the police convoy taking him to jail. What is Phillips trying to say here? That all large-scale social justice movements are doomed to disintegrate into acts of senseless, politically unmoored violence? That in a place like Gotham, there’s no difference between the likes of Fleck and say, a black woman protesting against an authoritarian police force?

The most charitable thing one can say about such an approach is that it’s naïve. Which is a real shame, because if ever a performance deserved a better film, it’s Phoenix’s clown-meets-contortionist effort here. He is, without a doubt, the greatest Method actor of his generation, preternaturally gifted at portraying broken, often traumatised men, in films like I’m Still Here (2010) The Master (2012), Her (2013) and You Were Never Really Here (2017). In the hands of a better director, Joker would have been the culmination of this phase of his career. Instead, we’re left with a whole lot of what ifs and a flaming hot mess of a film.

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Updated Date: Oct 12, 2019 17:28:58 IST