The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the festival circuit that JOKER was somehow profound. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not bad. It’s fine. But if it wasn’t for Joaquin Phoenix’s pained, spellbinding lead performance there’d be very little reason to see it.
In a rundown Gotham City facing garbage strikes, a poverty gap and violent social unrest a failed clown and wannabe comedian Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) tries to make his mark on the world.
No, this isn’t based on any one Batman or Batman-adjacent story, and few elements of the wider mythology come into it aside from the prominent presence of the Wayne family. At one point I was afraid they were going to push a ridiculous and unnecessary extra twist on the source material but thankfully this is just a red herring. This is just another in a long line of multiple choice Joker origins, and that’s OK.
Phoenix’s take on the Joker is definitely a take – oscillating between pitiable and powerful, tragic and terrifying. He’s in every scene and the camera is rarely not tightly in his face. He’s really uncomfortable to spend any length of time with, but you’re transfixed, unable to look away and in it for the 2 hour long-haul with him. I can’t say any of the other performances or characters are worth writing home about – Robert DeNiro’s much-publicised role as Rupert Pupkin-with-success Murray Franklin doesn’t exactly stretch him, Brett Cullen’s Thomas Wayne is Trumpy and one-note and Zazie Beetz is disappointingly reduced to a plot device. Even the one relationship that might have been genuinely touching and sympathetic, that of Arthur and his frail mother (Frances Conroy) turns out to be a toxic one and is built on better film portrayals of these kinds of unhealthy mother-son relationships.
Mostly it’s relentlessly grim and angry about general injustices in the world. With more insight, even more specifically directed anger, it might have packed a punch, but a few moments aside it doesn’t. Scenes like the threatening escalation of a police chase through a train packed with protesting clowns and Arthur taking a quiet moment to dance in rapturous bliss in a public bathroom after committing his first atrocity are sadly few and far between.
The film also traps itself between excusing Arthur’s actions because of his mental health and the state of society (clunkiky summed up in monologue delivered to the audience towards the end) and seeing him punished for them. You’re clearly not meant to be able to get a clear picture of Arthur, but the filmmakers don’t really give you enough meat on either side of the argument to make an informed decision about how to feel about his actions.
Appealing cocktail of influences as Todd Phillips’ film is, it’s just so derivative. There’s nothing wrong with taking notes from Scorsese, but lifting entire scenes from TAXI DRIVER and especially KING OF COMEDY betrays a lack of inspiration. If we were to reduce this down to its base elements, Joker is a King of Comedy remake with added riots.
For all the things you could criticise the film for, glorification of violence isn’t one of them. Acts of violence in Joker are nasty, messy and realistic. Horrible acts, whatever the justification behind them, are shown to have lasting consequences.
I’d have much preferred to feel more strongly either way about Joker, to be able to really dig into something of substance, good or bad. As it is, it’s a mildly diverting curiosity not worth getting worked up about. Phoenix might win Best Actor – he probably should – but everything else will soon be forgotten. It’s not big, it’s not clever, but it’s watchable. SSP