After all that critical adulation, it’s a punchline worthy of the Clown Prince of Crime himself that Joker isn’t very good.
We’re in early ’80s Gotham for DC’s latest movie. Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), battling mental illness, is employable only as a street clown sign-spinner for local recession-hit businesses.
Caring for his ailing mother (Frances Conroy) in a dingy tenement apartment, he dreams of stand-up comedy fame and the approval of his idol, late night talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro).
But, in a world tailspinning into chaos, Arthur is finding it hard to turn that frown upside down. Not helping is a neurological glitch making him laugh at inopportune moments, no matter his mood.
When bad luck bites in the form of employment and family woes, Arthur takes a note from The Dark Knight Joker’s playbook: Slaughter is the best medicine.
Pedestrian in its plotting, unimaginative in its choices, Joker is a film cosplaying at being daring and dangerous. Yet, no matter how good cosplay is, it’s no match for the real deal. The real deal here being those ’70s and ’80s classics the film drapes over its chic bleak posturing. Posturing masquerading as hot-button issue storytelling.
Director Todd Phillips opens his film with the 1970s Warner Bros logo that graced such controversial titles as A Clockwork Orange. But, that film plus Straw Dogs, and Network (and Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke comic, an influence here) explored themes of freedom, savagery and urban rage with a maturity absent here.
And anyone paying attention knows Phillips and co-writer Scott Silver most wanted this to be a 21st century Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy. Easy to see why; Scorsese’s films did address hot-button issues of the time. Discarded war veterans, human trafficking, conformity, failing law and order, celebrity culture. All still relevant, all overlooked by a director so self-satisfied with his “today’s world is so insane, it could create a real-life Joker” premise he forgets to do anything with it.
For all the pre-release talk of a grimy arthouse film (price tag, ahem, $55m) and winning top prize at the Venice Film Festival, Joker snugly fits the template of a superhero origins movie: central character yearning to right a world gone wrong, enduring family tragedy, set on his path by a mid-point crisis (here a Bernie Goetz-style vigilante shooting), all building to a showdown with his arch-nemesis.
The plot beats are turgid and predictable, laboriously explaining Mr. J’s psychology via a prosaic, mental-illness bashing backstory.
Then there is Joaquin Phoenix. Let off the leash by Phillips, he nicks Batman Bale’s physique from The Machinist and offers tics and mannerisms in lieu of a character.
His is Acting with a capital “A”, a showboat performance good in trailers and awards clips, but thin gruel over two hours. Far below Ledger, Nicholson, Hamill, and Romero, but we’ll concede superior to Jared Leto.
That Phillips directed The Hangover movies means it’s no surprise women are underserved. Zazie Beetz does what she can with her underwritten idealised girlfriend, while Six Feet Under’s Frances Conroy is wasted as screeching burden Ma Fleck.
Compare their roles to Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver and Diahnne Abbott in The King of Comedy for what might have been.
De Niro seems to be passing on a torch by appearing as a proxy for his King of Comedy obsession/nemesis, but like Conroy and Beetz has little to do other than react to Phoenix.
A second act twist and the movie’s climax are as obvious as they are underwhelming.
More interesting would have been to put the denouement midway through the film and explore what is unleashed.
But that would be genuinely risky, and Joker isn’t interested in risks (other than “what-if” trashing of beloved DC characters). Which is why incels are likely to latch onto its puddle-deep “woe is me” philosophy.
Want a good film about a wounded soul battling isolation, uniting the dispossessed for a greater cause and sticking it to the Man in his tower of privilege? Try DC’s Shazam.