Joaquin Phoenix in Joker (Photo: Warner)
★★ (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Todd Phillips
STARS Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro
(For a look at The 10 Best & 10 Worst Films of 2019, go here.)
The theatrical trailer for Joker — tight, controlled, and intriguing — suggested the best movie Martin Scorsese never made. The actual movie is a shallow and sophomoric effort that isn’t about a raging bull as much as it’s merely raging bullshit.
Nevertheless, the Scorsese connection is there, with two titles particularly coming into play. Like 1976’s Taxi Driver, Joker is the study of a disturbed individual who eventually finds his catharsis through violence, and, like 1982’s The King of Comedy, it’s a look at a man who desperately wants to become a famous comedian, complete with all the attendant trappings. This all takes place in a movie that at once exists within the comic-book milieu while also simultaneously wanting to remain apart from it.
Set in the Gotham City of 1981 (we know this because a movie theater is showing Blow Out and Zorro: The Gay Blade), this stars Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck, who’s been beaten down by life — and beaten up by everyone around him — from Day One. Desperately wanting to become a beloved comedian like his idol, talk-show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro, cast because of his Scorsese connection but, at the end of the day, badly miscast), he toils as a clown-for-hire while waiting for his big break. But nothing is easy for him, as he’s irritated by his invalid mother (Frances Conroy), mocked by co-workers, assaulted by a gang of street kids, insulted by Murray on live television, and harassed by three Wall Street slugs. It’s that last act that pushes him over the edge, as he turns into 1984-vintage Bernhard Goetz and shoots all of them. Their deaths turn Fleck into a hero — finally, someone sticking it to the rich bastards! — and from here, he only becomes more unhinged.
In all of his previous incarnations — in comics, on TV, in movies — I’ve never thought of the Joker as a cowardly person, yet that’s not the case here. He’s clearly a coward — and so is the movie that shelters him. Writer-director Todd Phillips, the Road Trip / The Hangover guru who’s clearly out of his league here, and co-scripter Scott Silver huff and puff and try to blow all sociopolitical issues into the filmic conversation, but the movie is all surface and ultimately doesn’t even have the power of its supposed convictions. Heath Ledger’s Joker, Jack Nicholson’s Joker, and even Jared Leto’s Joker (if memory serves, as I won’t be revisiting Suicide Squad at any point in this lifetime) all had no problem hurting innocent people — ditto another psycho who lived with his invalid “mother,” Norman Bates. But that’s not the case here. Arthur Fleck takes care to spare the few decent people in his life — an attractive neighbor (Zazie Beetz), a diminutive co-worker (Leigh Gill) — while reserving all his ire for the bad people. This includes Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), little Bat-Bruce’s dad and such a repellent character that you can’t wait for him to get shot in that alley (faithful butler Alfred Pennyworth, always the spark of humanity in Batman projects, also registers as a jerk). It’s a bald attempt by Phillips to make Arthur Fleck sympathetic, but that proves to be a major blunder.
Even while protecting Jodie Foster’s child prostitute, Taxi Driver‘s Travis Bickle was never sympathetic — his craziness and creepiness always remained front and center. But Phillips doesn’t want to alienate large segments of his audience — specifically, the white males who feel picked on by women, minorities, and well-to-dos, and who won’t be happy until they can bask in their self-entitlement — so he eases the brakes on Fleck’s otherwise all-encompassing derangement. Fleck is a terrible stand-up comic, but the movie still suggests that he deserves success regardless. Hey, I’ve long wanted to be a star wide receiver in the NFL, but that doesn’t mean I automatically deserve a spot on the Rams or Cowboys roster.
Phoenix delivers an overall strong performance as Fleck/Joker, even if his actorly tics and Method mannerisms are often on full display. What’s missing from his portrayal — admittedly as much of a fault with the script as with his emoting — is any glimmer of intelligence behind those eyes. The character of the Joker works best as a brilliant counterpoint to the Dark Knight, someone whose brain is always working at Mach speed. Ledger conveyed this perfectly, and even Nicholson’s Joker, initially a mob flunky, was an expert on human nature, able to read, understand and act upon the flaws and frailties of other people. By contrast, Phoenix’s Joker seems rather dim-witted, hardly the stuff of supervillain legend.
Joker is exceedingly well-crafted, but the impressive technical achievements count for little in a movie that’s aimless and unfocused in its trendy nihilism. Like Fight Club, it will serve as a rallying cry for a certain subset of self-pitying males. But Fight Club is a movie that has been misdiagnosed and misinterpreted by those who champion it the most. Joker, on the other hand, clearly lays out its cards and tells these easily triggered jokers exactly what they want to hear. It offers sympathy for the devil — the one that dances in the pale moonlight.