The People v. Joker
If you’ve been following the coverage and press tour of Todd Phillips’ Joker then you’re familiar with the controversy surrounding it. If not, it’s been a hell of a ride. What began with the first trailer that promised a Scorsesean take on Batman’s arch rival only grew more tempestuous with the whispers of of its incel power fantasy narrative, its surprising win at the Venice Film Festival, and ultimately Phillips own poorly thought out defense of the film that led to an abrupt halt to the press tour. Even before it was released, Joker felt like a film designed to be polarizing and the end product more than lives up to that promise.
The whispers were definitely true as it’s hard to deny that Joker is the story of a troubled white man who feels disenfranchised and alienated by society and succumbs to his own violent urges as he reclaims the power he feels was stolen from him. If that sounds familiar it’s only because you’ve been watching the actual news lately. Joker is a story that feels uncomfortably close to real life violence and doesn’t bother to stop and offer any commentary on it. In fact, given Phillips’ comments, it seems as if the connection went completely over his head. It’s a film that aspires to the tone and aesthetic of late 70’s and early 80’s Scorsese without any of the nuance or self-awareness that made those pictures so memorable.
Joker presents an interesting juxtaposition as it’s a film both intensely focused and wildly unfocused. The audience spends the entire time firmly rooted in the perspective of Arthur Fleck (this Joker’s alter ego). Everything from the narrative, where you can count on one hand the number of minutes that Joaquin Phoenix is off screen, to the impeccable editing and score is designed to put you in Arthur’s head. To see what he sees and feel what he feels. In that regard, Joker is very successful. The problem is, this intense limited perspective hurts the movie as much as it helps. Arthur’s inherent chaotic nature and half-baked pseudo-political ramblings prevent the movie from going more than surface deep into anything other than Arthur’s head. It’s hard to tell whether or not the story Phillips is telling is meant to be anything other than a character study. You can conceivably read any number of things into it. Sympathetic rallying cry for incels? Sure. How about a condemnation on a society that caters to the rich? Why not? It’s portrayal of Thomas Wayne as an out of touch and over-privileged prick is in keeping with that reading. Or maybe it’s meant as a critique of the masses response to that injustice with its downtrodden protesters treated as nothing more than one of the Joker’s punchlines, just itching to devolve into full blown rioters.
Any takeaway you’re trying to find in Joker has something to back it up, which in some ways makes this a movie about nothing. If it’s a commentary on classism then its vague railings against the system fall far short of this summer’s razor sharp Read or Not. If it truly is designed with sympathy to the incel community then it’s problematic and unclear in its larger intentions anyways. The most apparent common thread I was able to glean is its consistent use of unintended consequences but even a “be careful what you wish for” style interpretation feels flimsy at best.
In truth, it feels likely that this is a movie about nothing. A study of a character Phillips and Phoenix are so fascinated with that the sequel-averse Phoenix is already contemplating what they can do next. If that is the case, then everything else, from its touches on inadequacies in the mental health industry and social welfare to its connections to real violence in 2019 are borderline cruel and nothing but tone deaf window dressing. Of course, this is nothing new for Phillips whose oeuvre contains the Hangover trilogy (which became darker with each entry) and Due Date which can be best described as Planes, Trains, and Automobiles but mean.
But for all of Phillips’ flaws, a lack of empathy and a deafness for tone and context chief among them, Phillips remains a director that gets the absolute best out of his actors. He facilitated not one but three star making turns in the The Hangover (Bradly Cooper, Zach Galifianakis, and Ken Jeong) as well as Jonah Hill’s underappreciated performance in War Dogs, so it’s no surprise that Joaquin Phoenix is nothing short of electric in this movie. He is already a major Oscar contender and deservedly so. Joker only works at all because of his performance.
That, in a nutshell, is what makes Joker so hard to evaluate. It is most certainly gripping and entertaining with an incredible lead performance and top rate editing and music to tie it all together. It’s even some of Phillips sharpest work, in terms of actually telling the story and creating striking images. But the unfocused themes and a script that tips its hand far too early hold back what could have been a truly great film in steadier hands.
See it theaters… after the hype dies down