Joker is a film that takes itself too seriously but ultimately amounts to a whole lot of nothing
Ultimately, Joker not enough of anything to have a strong reaction to.
There was added security at the New York cinema where I watched Joker. It was one of the smaller locations far away from the multiplexes; there were maybe twenty other people present. I didn’t mind the added bag checks, though it’s admittedly hard to imagine a film like Joker inspiring real-world violence — or inspiring much of anything.
The reason I chose this venue turned out to be a fitting metaphor for just how seriously Joker takes itself. This was one of the few theatres playing the movie on 70mm film, a presentation often tied to spectacle and prestige; Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master which also starred Joaquin Phoenix, was filmed and shown this way. Joker, however, was shot with digital cameras, so in order to fit the format, its image had to be blown up. Its self-importance feels just as inflated.
The film takes its cues from the works of Martin Scorsese (this was part of the initial idea, and Joker producer Emma Tillinger Koskoff also produced The Irishman) but despite overt plot similarities to Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, it feels more like somebody made a Patrick Willems mash-up along the lines of “What if Joker were directed by Josh & Benny Safdie?”
The Safdies’ Good Time and Heaven Knows What explored the grungy, woebegone corners of modern New York City. Like them, Joker director Todd Phillips often holds on his main character in long, uncomfortable close-ups. To his credit, the film does have a more tactile, lived-in feel than most superhero movies; the design does a thorough job of painting this version of Gotham (basically, the crime-ridden New York of the 1970s) as an eerie, seedy locale. But unlike either Scorsese or the Safdies, Phillips doesn’t actually explore his metropolitan backdrop in any meaningful way, despite it being a key facet of his story. The film’s premise is one of economic and social turmoil, but Phillips has little interest in what this might actually mean for the city — beyond the occasional shouted slogan at protests far in the background.
This makes it all the more difficult for Joker himself, a.k.a. Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) to feel like a product of his environment — which the film so desperately desires. What’s more, the Gotham of the end of the film, which bubbles over with Joker-inspired chaos, doesn’t really feel like a product of the Joker either.
See, Arthur, a professional clown, kicks off city-wide pandemonium and a “kill the rich” movement when he murders three Wall Street types employed by Thomas Wayne. But their economic status is incidental to his crimes. He kills them in self-defense, in response to being physically assaulted. Rather than there being a meaningful social dimension to this event, it simply mirrors the opening scene, wherein Arthur is assaulted by a group of poor street kids and doesn’t retaliate.
A whole social movement springing up in response to such a meaningless crime ought to feel nihilistic (to us, since we know the bigger picture), but the ensuing revolution is pushed well into the film’s margins. Arthur doesn’t seem to care about it, so it’s barely given the time of day. Arthur, on occasion, mentions he has no political ideology (or ideology of any sort), but he’s less “chaotic evil” a la Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight, and more a symptom of a film that doesn’t have any ideology either.
Joker has the appearance of ideology, certainly.
It makes vague allusions to Arthur’s mental health and how social programs have failed him. Gotham’s proletariat responds to mega-rich politicians with protests signs from modern movements (“Resist!”), but at times, the film’s platitudes resemble the much-maligned Kendall Jenner Pepsi ad, which featured the idea of a protest in service of a recognisable brand.
We’re neither made privy to anything underlying the Wayne agenda, nor to what’s actually happening in Gotham — its spike in crime, its economic downturn, or why Thomas Wayne calls its citizens “clowns” — and so why its people might take after a clown-faced murderer is something of a mystery. The “why” of crime in Gotham might not be necessary to explore, but the only crimes that ever unfold on-screen are groups of people ganging up on Arthur for fun. Joker may be nominally “about” class, but it makes the rich and the poor seem equally shitty.
Cinematographer Lawrence Sher and production designer Mark Friedberg expertly ape a particular aesthetic: New York crime films of the ’70s and ’80s. The spaces through which Arthur travels are designed to feel dim and dangerous, and the filmmakers have a clear affinity for Phoenix as a performer (there’s hardly a shot he isn’t in). However, the way Arthur moves through Gotham’s dingy corners is rarely filmed or edited to hold any kind of tension. Except for the rich-boy assault on the subway (which is admittedly gripping, thanks to its constantly flashing lights), Arthur’s day-to-day travels and interactions feel almost routine. Arthur’s mother Penny (Frances Conroy) makes mention of how people in the city are getting crazier — something Arthur eventually repeats — but despite the dark shadows and frequent graffiti, the city itself comes off as mundane. The film has plenty of paradoxes, and few of them seem intentional.
The Joker, as a character, has always embodied a central contradiction between humour and horror. He wears a welcoming face, but he’s anything from a murderous sociopath to a morbid prankster, depending on which version you like. Here, the film seeks to ground that contradiction in something real and explainable. Arthur has a medical condition that causes him to laugh uncontrollably, regardless of how he’s feeling. This contradiction is the perfect opportunity to use laughter in chilling situations — A death? A funeral? A hospital bedside? — but it’s only ever used to make situations feel mildly inappropriate. Plus, despite his uncontrollable laughter, the character’s eventual transformation from simpleton to “psycho” isn’t rooted in his neurosis, or any of the vague mental illnesses the film keeps alluding to.
And sure, refusing to tie violence to mental illness is the more socially conscious choice (the joke’s on “woke culture” decrier Todd Phillips, I guess) but this leaves Arthur’s violence without any ideology that can be fully dramatised. He only ever acts out of petty vengeance or self-defense — which wouldn’t be a problem, were it not for the film alluding to some deeper impetus behind him combating social malaise. The film insists that ideology doesn’t matter to Arthur (he says as much, and the film makes sure to divorce him from the larger political backdrop) and yet, Arthur also frames the lack of social safety nets as a reason for his violence.
For all its gritty, hand-held, neo-realist texture, Joker is acoustically loaded with booming opera strings — another contradiction that serves only to highlight the film’s shortcomings. Its score hints constantly at some lurking interiority that simply does not exist, no matter how many times the film has Arthur break into post-crime ballet.
However, let it not go unsaid: Phoenix is absolutely committed to the role. Heck, he runs like he has clown shoes on, even when he doesn’t. As Arthur, Phoenix is as gaunt as Christian Bale in The Machinist, as awkward as Michael Scott in The Office, and as self-loathing as… well, Michael Scott on The Office. But his eventual transformation into a kitsch, overtly queer Joker while on air with talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert DeNiro) is one of those bizarre, seemingly out-of-left field decisions you wish they’d devoted actual time to. It’s so sudden and strange, it could just as easily be one of Michael Scott’s many offensive characters. It’s hard to tell where exactly Arthur is coming from when he starts embodying an entirely different can of worms from the preceding ninety minutes; a regular, grimy, heterosexual schlub embodying a society’s fears by leaning into queer camp is too loaded an idea for Joker to handle — so it feels accidental.
The Murray Franklin subplot draws directly from Scorsese’s The King of Comedy, right down to Arthur imagining himself performing on Murray’s comedy show. Arthur even wears a maroon outfit matching the one worn by DeNiro’s Rupert Pupkin. It’s also not far off from the jacket DeNiro’s Travis Bickle wears in Taxi Driver, in which the disturbed protagonist assassinates a political leader (here, Arthur tracks down Thomas Wayne for reasons best left unspoiled). These similarities exist, and are obvious, but they hold no real meaning. Where Pupkin was obsessed with talk show host Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis) and with performing on his show, Arthur retaliates against Murray out of vengeance for a petty slight. Where Bickle’s violent nature stemmed from his time in the U.S. military, Arthur’s is… well, it’s not quite clear. In one moment, Arthur talks of how he doesn’t regret killing the three Wayne employees, but he’s also a fairly empathetic dude who likes to make children smile. In the next moment, his violent nature is implied to be the result of childhood abuse, a wrong-headed idea that appears and disappears so quickly that it’s hard to even be offended by.
What is Phillips really saying with his references to Scorsese? Nothing much, it would seem. The iconic close-up of Travis Bickle pointing a finger gun to his own head is re-created verbatim, but the action is performed by Zazie Beetz’s Sophie, who’s barely a character at all, let alone one for whom such a gesture would hold any sort of meaning (the gesture appears elsewhere, but a brief flashback to Sophie sees the shot unfold with the exact same lighting and slow-motion). This, despite the fact that Bickle and Arthur are both branded vigilantes.
The film is filled to the brim with ideas based on other, better filmmakers and on relevant social themes, but it all amounts to a meaningless jumble. It’s a copycat movie that steals from too many things at once to make sense of any one of them.
However, what’s perhaps most irritating about Joker is its insistence on being taken seriously without ever really earning it. It’s R-rated, it’s grizzly, and it’s occasionally bloody, but it’s never alluring or intoxicating the way Scorsese’s crime films often are. It doesn’t swing in the opposite direction either; other than the initial shock of seeing blood in a comicbook movie, the violence doesn’t feel repulsive enough to make a statement.
Arthur’s constant pull-and-push between laughter and horror is only ever narrativised in two specific instances. In one, slapstick embarrassment collides with the discomforting weight of cops questioning him about his murders on the night his mother has a stroke. Just as they interrogate him about his condition, he walks into a clear glass hospital door. In the other moment, Arthur, still employed as a clown, drops a gun while dancing to entertain kids in a cancer ward. The jolting mix of humour and concern elicited by these scenes makes the film feel most alive — and most like it wants you to question your own impulses. But Joker never really builds on this idea.
Beyond these two instances, Arthur is never funny enough to be likeable, nor is he shocking or unpredictable enough to be truly revolting. He exists, instead, in a lukewarm middle-ground where the thunderous clash between laughter and whatever else afflicting him (I want to say depression? It’s unclear) is rendered meaningless. A middle ground where we, the audience, aren’t torn between conflicting emotions, but rather, confused by what we’re meant to be feeling at all.
In the film, Joker is eventually worshipped for catalysing a movement. The unrest in Gotham adopts his very face, even though he’s mostly unconcerned with the revolution (in fact, he’s out cold when it climaxes). People have a tendency to latch on to any powerful imagery if it suits their cause (see also: the Nazis), but regardless of the Joker’s function within the text, his aesthetic never manages to permeate the screen. It holds meaning for the citizens of Gotham, who frolic and riot while projecting a Che Guevera-like spirit onto some clown makeup. But this symbol remains trapped in the world of the film, shackled to insipid Batman Easter eggs that feel out of place in something so self-serious (including one from the Adam West show?) and visual references a-plenty to far better filmmakers.
Of course, to say this new Joker symbol fails to rouse spirits is to suggest it was meant to. It likely wasn’t; the filmmakers have no qualms about Arthur being a villain. However, crude is it might sound, part of me wishes the film’s imagery were powerful enough to be misinterpreted that way. The end result, however, is neither condemnation nor persuasion. It results in neither adoration, nor revulsion. It’s not enough of anything to have a strong reaction to.
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