If ever there was a movie that does not live up to its hype, it is Todd Phillips’ much debated Joker. A stripped down, deconstructed comic book movie, Joker is supposedly the most inflammatory, dangerous, provocative film of the year—of the era!—a movie that is maybe causing a moral panic and fanning the flames of the culture war. Don’t call it a superhero movie, this is a prestige drama! Joker won the Golden Lion at Venice, it is unlike any other comic book movie that has come before! Unfortunately, Joker can’t deliver on any of that hype. There are elements that are good, even very good, but overall the movie suffers from devastating self-importance, a total lack of consideration, and, worse, it has no point of view. It’s Taxi Driver for Dummies, a kind of cinematic crib sheet copying homework from Martin Scorsese. It’s not perverse or daring, it’s not even really interesting. Joker is mostly just an ugly, nihilistic swan dive into the nastiest parts of our society. That would be fine if it had anything to say about said society, but Joker does not have an opinion other than “people are sh-tty”. Not surprising coming from Phillips, one of cinema’s great misanthropes, but it is a singularly uninteresting observation.
Thank god, then, for Joaquin Phoenix. He is so watchable he almost makes Joker work in spite of itself. Sporting a startlingly lean frame—it looks like his bones are about to escape his skin at any moment—and working a braying laugh, Phoenix manages to wrest the Joker out of the shadow of Heath Ledger and create something that is interesting in its own right. We follow Phoenix as proto-Joker Arthur Fleck, a menial laborer in the Gotham City of circa 1980, where citizens are dealing with a debilitating garbage strike and plagued by overwhelming public ennui. Arthur is barely getting by, working as a clown-for-hire who promptly gets mugged in the opening scene. He splits his time between work, court-mandated therapy, and caring for his house-bound mother, Penny (Frances Conroy), who is fixated on Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) and writes him letters begging for help.
Phoenix’s screen presence and magnetism give Arthur some verve, but Phillips, who co-wrote the script with Scott Silver, squanders that energy in a stupidly simple story. This is a movie that swings between Arthur’s very understandable frustration with a broken-down healthcare system, to Arthur crossing out words on a sign so that it says, “Don’t Smile”. Joker could have done something interesting with a Gotham driven to the brink by wealth inequality, with a Joker that springs from a frustrated working class and not the usual mob background, and a Thomas Wayne who throws money at problems he doesn’t really understand, which only fuels the frustration that eventually creates his son’s arch-nemesis. Instead, Arthur is making “Don’t Smile” signs and Joker blames everything on mental illness: Arthur has a traumatic brain injury, and he starts sliding into villainy after he stops receiving therapy. If Joker had any willingness to meaningfully deal with our own real-world phenomenon of frustrated white men who murder, it could do more with a Gotham on the brink and a villain hailed as a hero (for a moment, anyway). Instead, it comes down to “bad brain = bad man”. It’s an offensive over-simplification.
There are other elements of the movie that work, such as Hildur Gudnadottir’s score and Lawrence Sher’s cinematography, but the story mechanics are so bad the technical elements can’t save Joker. I won’t go so far to say that it’s garbage, because it looks and sounds too good, but this is not a narrative that works. Besides cravenly scapegoating the mentally ill, Joker has no perspective on anything except that Joaquin Phoenix is a really good actor. The movie so lacks focus that, despite all protestations to the contrary, the final shot IS celebratory, showing a Joker embodied, embraced, and exulted. There is no counterpoint, no contrast to the Joker’s actions, which means that while the movie may not endorse real-world violence, it certainly endorses the violence of its fictional world. That would be fine if Joker had anything to say about that (fictional) violence, but it does not.
Joker is the film equivalent of a high school dork dressed in black scribbling “everyone is stupid” in his notebook. That kid is so busy sealing himself in his cynicism he doesn’t develop an actual personality, he just learns how to get attention by being obnoxious. That’s Joker. It’s garish and seedy in a cinematically unappealing way, harking back to the New York crime dramas of the 1970s and 1980s, but it has no substance of its own, it only has borrowed affectations and cheap nihilism. Joaquin Phoenix lends a dramatic flair that is otherwise unearned, and “people are sh-tty” is hardly a daring stand against society. It’s kind of amazing such an empty spectacle has sparked so much heated debate, but then, comic book movies usually are over-hyped.