|Warner Bros. Pictures
Living in the slums of Gotham City with his troubled mother, social outcast, party clown, and aspiring comedian Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) struggles with his mental illness. As ruthless street punks, his boss, a late night talk show host, and society seemingly have out for him, Fleck wrestles to fulfill his aspirations of putting on a happy face and making the world smile. Subsequently, the ostracization he endures drives him closer to becoming the nihilistic criminal he abhors.
Director Todd Phillips leaves the comedy world behind to take on a complex comic book icon who blurs the lines between villain and anti-hero. In pop culture, Joker's earned a status of cool by swatting at the privileged classes while having a laugh at the city's expense. Despite his unhinged personality and behavior, Joker's maddening method to the chaos easily gains legions of fans who believe anarchy can dismantle the system. By following in The Dark Knight's footsteps with a gripping portrayal, Phillips tries to tackle mental health for the Joker's origins. But the root of his film's problems is that there's not much here except untapped potential.
To start, the story preemptively bets we'll automatically be on his side simply due to the plethora of reasons for how Arthur's unending and mounting suffering - a traumatic brain injury leaves him with a condition where he's triggered to laugh at the most inopportune times. Residing with his mother who has her own mental health problems, he's a relative shut-in with no social skills or social life. He gets beat up at his job, the people he works with hates him, and just when you think life couldn't kick him down anymore, it does, and he increasingly doesn't have any more ha-ha-ha's to give. Despite what he faces, Arthur supposedly has aspirations to make Gotham better than what it is - to be kinder, less cynical, and make people smile. But when given the opportunity to truly step in and help others, he doesn’t. He remains focused on himself, internalizes all the world's problems around him, and then starts violently lashing out.
What ends up happening here is that the film does little to give you something to root for why Arthur might not or shouldn't have a breakdown even though it's inevitable. Phillips's only draw for tension is that Arthur's stability is cracking or cracked beyond the point of no return, and we're just there to ride it out. In turn, the city of Gotham itself and every supporting character no matter if they are a group of Latinx kids, a dwarf, another white guy at Arthur's gig, or a single mother of color exists purely to be a bystander of Arthur’s destruction. He doesn't even take a public stand against the film's biggest foe-in-the-background Thomas Wayne who wants to use the 99% as his own white savior project, but Arthur gets the credit for it for a real crime he committed that happens to go "viral." Anything that potentially appears good for Arthur is eventually twisted into a device that doesn't aid him and never intended to do so in the first place. This is advantageous for a film that aims to use the final straw as a climax for his breakdown; it's a disadvantage when Arthur's non-existent non-movement for peace or chaos is so incidental, the explosion of rebellion feels inserted into the plot rather than a result of his actions. Gotham exists so much in Arthur's peripheral that his mob of copycat clowns is just violence as a means to a disturbing end.
While I’m all for a film exploring how a character can't pick themselves back up again despite their best efforts or their mental state used to shift plot structure, alter timelines and create illusions (Memento, Black Swan, Shutter Island, American Psycho), Joker relies on a performance that's absolutely hollow in carrying out its intentions. Despite his massive weight loss and vacant expressions, Phoenix is shockingly void of a personality and internal struggles, and especially “finding some real”. His cringe-worthy laughs and abstract dances mean to signal his increasing loss of reality, but remains a repetitive running gag that doesn't stem from any real source of psychosis or deeper expression of self. Phoenix's lack of depth only calls back to why Heath Ledger’s version delivered a fulfilling complex portrayal - it wasn't just the voice and make-up that got him the Oscar, but every laugh, lie, and seed he planted had a resonating motivation to turn Gotham in on itself. For Phoenix, there’s nothing going on beyond the veil of Arthur’s misfortune (several of which are his own silly mistakes and not imposed on him because the world is ~evil~).
With Phillip's overall direction that manages to maintain an even pace without utilizing an iota of tension or action to support it, Joker isn't a total waste. In the middle of all the tomfoolery is a script by Phillips and co-writer Scott Silver that's terrifyingly relevant to our current era of Arthur Fleck's in the news. There are small tricks with his transformation and the setting that creates a palpable and enigmatic energy where you're waiting for something exciting to happen - the NYC atmospheric edge of the 1970s, the idea of his laugh as an uncontrollable response, the thinnest re-examination of Arthur;s connection to the murder of Bruce Wayne's parents. Besides the clown make-up and the inclusion of Batman characters, that's all you're going to find of DCEU here. Surrounding the scraps of a decent script is an an all-encompassing cinematography by Lawrence Sher and heart-pounding score by Hildur Guðnadóttir that makes Joker hard to turn away from, and delivers on being different than the formulaic superhero movies we're used to.
Phillips and Phoenix admirably attempts to solve the superhero flick problem by making a non-CGI spectacle, but they barely graze the surface of anything they’re trying to say. Instead of digging deep into Fleck's development into Joker, the movie parks itself on the corner and dances down the street while the film world goes up in flames. As much as Arthur wears a mask to the rest of the world, Joker wears one too - by trying to make a point about the disenfranchised (white males) without actually making one. It's also unsurprising that this becomes an example of the pseudo character study we're left with when following ex-producer Martin Scorsese's idea of traditional storytelling - genres actually blur together. In the end, Joker’s too boring to be considered brilliant, not worth the hot-take hype culture, and too pointless to be cancelled. It just makes clowns of us all.
Have you seen Joker? What did you think?