So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Mr. Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic-book fare.
But the politics… The proliferation of think pieces on Joker might give one the impression it heralded the implosion of western civilisation, vying even with Trump and Boris for column inches. How it’s legitimising and enforcing the positions of – apparently, who knew? –millions of basement-dwelling, enraged incels, all poised to take out their self-hatred on the “norms” at the pull of a trigger. How it “advocates” all the things progressive society hoped it had strong-armed to the door with marching orders.
And how, thanks to Todd Phillips shooting his sensitive mouth off, it stands by association in opposition to anyone intent on curbing artistic and more especially comedic freedoms, the righteous Twitterati intent on expunging such unexpurgated voices. All of which, well, yeah. Inevitable hyperbole on all sides. Wade through all that, and you reach the important question; is Joker any good? Does any of the hype(rbole) actually match up to the movie itself? Some of it.
Joker encounters the obstacle that, even as a non-blockbuster, differently-positioned alt-comic book movie, it is selling itself as that thing. It can’t just be a little project to be embraced or ignored, not with the full might of the Warner marketing department behind it. When it was first announced, back when Marty Scorsese – he of “MCU isn’t cinema” infamy – was, for a few days, attached as an executive producer, it was greeted extremely dubiously. This was, after all, off the back of the last Joker iteration, and the idea – admittedly not without some justification up until then – that the Joker in and of himself spelled success, nearly as much as a nippleless Batman himself, was seen as simple straightforward cynicism on Warner’s part.
That combined with a laissez-faire, throw anything at the wall and see what sticks casualness to projects in the wake of the collapse of a “coherent” Snyder-led DC-verse. There was equal parts intrigue – Joaquin Phoenix, who had turned down Doctor Strange and was really not interested in commercial for commercial fare’s sake – and suspicion – how could Todd Phillips, who tended towards broad or gross-out comedy be planning something artistically inclined? Case in point: War Dogs. Just how wannabe Scorsese was that (and you can bet it had The Wolf of Wall Street comparisons all over its pitch meetings)? So really, it could have gone either way in terms of how it was appraised; it could have been another Suicide Squad.
As such, I’ll readily admit I needed persuading. And I say that as someone who actually liked The Hangover Part II. None of the trailers really convinced me this was going to be a movie of serious artistic accomplishment, impressive as moments – and Phoenix, obviously – appeared. And then the initial outpouring of critics’ raves (a Golden Lion is not to be sniffed at). And then the backlash. All of it kindling to an event picture. As in: gotta see to have an opinion. Most comic book movies aren’t watercooler events in that sense.
The problems I have with Joker essentially goes back to those initial message-board responses, the push-pull of Phoenix and Phillips working together. On the one hand, Phoenix gives the kind of fully immersive, absorbing performance you expect: a cracked actor, or clown, undergoing fractures of mind and body (his physical contortions are as alarming as any schisms in his psyche).
On the other, Phillips, who is, as comedy directors go, top flight, one of the few who can lend a cinematic lustre to what is traditionally a rather four-square approach to the genre, simply isn’t up to that level. Indeed, he even undermines the central performance somewhere around the mid-section by allowing his star’s antics to close in on repetitive schtick. Phillips is unable to lend the camera a subjectivity that would really entangle you with Arthur Fleck’s perspective. The way Scorsese does with Travis Bickle. Or even Aronofsky does with Nina Sayers. And I think that’s because he doesn’t really know his protagonist; at best, he has a clutch of ideas and grievances he has thrown in a blender and tipped out, sploshing across the screen where they may.
Which means it’s all very well having such an overview, in principal, but whether or not the entire movie is actually in Arthur Fleck’s own head – as the final scene in Arkham might suggest – is only so interesting. Although, the scene where he runs into a glass door after brushing off the cops intent on questioning him suggests that if he is, his psyche is so self-gnawing that it can’t even allow his fantasy self a moment of cool. There’s only ever an out-of-his-reach feel to Phillips clutching at the psychological traumas Arthur is going through, his playing the role of devoted son and possible disinherited millionaire’s bastard and fantasy boyfriend of his neighbour.
There’s no additional interest in a delusion within a delusion if none of the delusions are that compelling in the first place – although it might at least explain how Arthur leaps from where he is at the end of the movie to a criminal mastermind of Batman lore. As in: he doesn’t. And the movie’s deep dive into Wayne family continuity doesn’t suddenly become a flash of brilliance if its only significance is that he’s a disturbed guy obsessed with the fame of the Wayne family and (perhaps) the death of Bruce’s parents.
Of course, one might also draw dots between a guy who talks unprompted to kids on buses, makes friends with a single mum and grabs at a boy outside the gates of his father’s mansion, and his final transformative serenading himself to Gary Glitter’s Rock ‘n’ Roll (Part 2), surely the picture’s most transgressive moment and one that can be no coincidence. But those connections don’t really make it daring either. Quite the contrary: it’s simply a movie that’s self-consciously fishing and not having the cojones, through casting its net of interpretations sufficiently wide, to have an actually coherent point of view.
So while Phoenix sustains Arthur’s interior life, Phillips fails him simply by lacking the tools to keep up. That said, the director is fully versant, entirely at ease and accomplished with the “real world” elements of the story. Of the squalor of 1981 NYC, of a mentally-ill guy having the shit kicked out of him in back alleys or on the subway, and of the catharsis of turning upon his oppressors.
Sure, the anti-rich sentiment is only ever window-dressing in its sub-V for Vendetta masked movement – a stretch that Arthur would have inspired it, sure, but then any such stretch has the instant get-out of it being an insane person’s imaginings – but in fairness, that cynicism and the uncertainty attached to that theme are addressed head-on during his Murray Franklin show appearance, where Arthur both rejects the political element and embraces it in his vilification of Gotham’s richest benefactor.
And the Network-esque death on air is effective simply because it’s a tried-and-tested shock tactic, even as far back as Joe Dante homaging it for a werewolf transformation. Phillips was accomplished with the seedy viscera you could almost – but wouldn’t want to – touch in The Hangovers, and it’s the same here, with the squalid apartment building and the ever-screaming neighbour you never see, shouting rebukes to Arthur’s involuntary laughter.
Phillips handles the explosions of violence with relish, and he has taken the trouble to ensure everyone on the receiving end of Arthur’s outbursts is culpable in some way. One might argue this is exactly how a locked-up fantasist would play out their projections, but it also represents the sculpting of the anti-hero in the manner of someone actually enamoured of Travis Bickle’s exploits.
You can have a performance telling one story, and a director simultaneously saying one thing while depicting another, and sometimes those things can co-exist, but the greater risk is that you end up signalling that you have no idea what you’re actually saying, if anything. The entire movie strikes me as having a cake-and-eat-it approach – it’s even set in the same year that someone obsessed with Taxi Driver committed an attempted presidential assassination – which means it’s never quite anything; Joker lacks a singularity of vision that comes from a “true” auteur (even when that true auteur is intentionally offering ambiguity of interpretation).
Consequently, I was most engaged by Joker’s last half hour, when it stopped playing rather feeble games with Arthur’s imaginings and got down to him transforming himself into a masked, nominally empowered alter ego (at least, until the last couple of minutes).
I suspect my take on the film will coalesce more with a second viewing, but I have the feeling it may simply confirm a rather empty experience, rich of environment and impressive of performance, but ultimately superficial, directly because of its purported depth, which amounts to a grab bag of societal decay, opportunistic political swipes and references to much better movies made by a guy who doesn’t like comic book movies. I don’t feel Phillips feels Arthur, however much Phoenix does. Certainly, if either he or Phoenix back down from a no-sequel policy, they’re likely to expose that these really were the Joker’s new clothes.