Directed by Todd Phillips
Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz
No matter how queasy the alliance, audiences will always gravitate toward a compelling antihero. It goes far deeper than understanding why a scoundrel does the despicable things he does—it’s all about looking at the Devil and finding that we’ve been staring at a reflection all along. That’s the power that a character like The Joker wields: In him, we all recognize that we are all one terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day from unleashing our id.
More recent reviews:
- Review: ‘The Goldfinch’ is an oddly bland take on the Pulitzer-winning book
- Review: ‘Hustlers’ is Scorsese with strippers, ‘Goodfellas’ with G-strings
- Review: ‘Ad Astra’ soars in its Kubrickian attempts, not so in its Coppola moves
- Review: Why ‘It: Chapter Two’ is the most life-affirming horror saga you will ever see
- Review: ‘Abominable’ is visually resplendent but dwarfs its most precious gift
But we all know that when we do so, life will rarely let us off the hook. That is the grownup viewpoint that is sorely missing from Todd Phillips’ Joker, a character study that has all the seriousness of tone but aspires to none of the adulthood of its R-16 rating.
In this iteration, the nascent Clown Prince of Crime is Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a jester-for-hire who has aspirations of being a standup comedian. Phillips makes the admirably risky creative choice of situating Arthur in a real-world, non-CGI version of Gotham that conjures New York City at its seediest. There is a sanitation-crew strike going on, garbage has gone uncollected and is piling up in the streets, and a plague of “super rats” has been ravaging the metropolis. (Though we never actually see so much as one plump rodent—perhaps that was a bridge of filth too far?)
This is not the kitschy studio-backdrop Gotham of Tim Burton, nor the hyper-stylized Frank Miller/Alan Moore version that Christopher Nolan pillaged for his Dark Knight trilogy. This Gotham is the gritty New York at the height of the Ed Koch era, where subway trains are festooned with graffiti and porn theaters are still showing titles like Strip Search and Ace in the Hole. The illusion of squalor presented by director of photography Lawrence Sher’s sickly yellow-and-green palette and Mark Friedberg’s grungy production design is so convincing, you almost expect to see Ratso Rizzo hobbling off a curb and slapping the hood of an oncoming cab.
But the desperate soul on display isn’t the street hustler from Midnight Cowboy—it’s Arthur, who we first see getting ready for his job. He is applying carnival grease onto his face, and he is so unfit to spread mirth that he has to insert his fingers into his mouth and hold up his lips into a parody of a smile. Later on, he asks his social worker (Sharon Washington), “Is it just me, or is it getting crazy out there?” The Gotham presented in Joker isn’t just a realist portrayal cribbed from American New Wave movies like Taxi Driver and Mean Streets; the city is also a reflection of the alienation, the primal howl emanating from Arthur’s soul.
And, boy, does Joaquin Phoenix lean into that howl. Arthur is supposed to have a condition—a card he shows strangers attributes it to a brain injury—that makes him burst out cackling at the most inopportune times. Phoenix has a catalog of cackles for his laughing version of Tourette’s, depending on the nuance of the situation: There is a surprised shriek, a perfunctory guffaw, and a crying fit that masquerades as an uncontrollable, never-ending jag of laughter. He has also sculpted his body and movements to fit Arthur’s anguish: His ribs and shoulders are all sharp edges, his back with its knobs of vertebra is hunched into a harsh comma, his run resembles a foal just discovering its legs. It’s a performance that’s painful to watch.
It can also be exhausting. That’s because bad stuff just keeps happening to Arthur. He gets beaten up twice. He lives with a frail mother (Frances Conroy) who he discovers is harboring a devastating secret, only to then discover another secret even more traumatic than the first. He gets kicked out of an outpatient mental health program because the city has cut funding for it. He gets fired from his job for bringing a gun to a children’s hospital gig which a colleague—for the murkiest of motivations—encouraged him to keep for protection. And the surrogate father figure that keeps him and his mother company at their decrepit apartment every night, a smarmy talk-show host named Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro, in a calculated role reversal from The King of Comedy), humiliates him by broadcasting an illicit video of his disastrous first stab at a standup routine. How can a guy not go homicidal, right?
That is Joker’s most problematic aspect: It’s a listing of all the ways that society has victimized Arthur, a two-hour “look what you made me do” diatribe. Looked at from a certain angle, Joker is a natural extension of Phillips’ Hangover trilogy and his comedic, real-life crime caper War Dogs, a dramatic depiction of masculinity that is toxic in its refusal to take any responsibility. He started from boys will be boys, even when their hijinks result in face tattoos and amputated fingers. Then it became boys are just answering an existing demand, even if it means selling overpriced arms to shady syndicates. And now Phillips’ thesis has come to full pernicious bloom: Boys are never really at fault, even when they kill three Wall Street douchebags in the subway and spark an anti-rich movement among Gotham’s seething, clown mask-wearing 99%.
Towards the climax, Arthur laments, in full-on clown makeup and resplendent orange shirt and green suit, that people have stopped listening to each other. If only Joker had listened to its own lead character’s advice, it would be an even richer, more disturbing experience. The only time the movie refers to its Batman connection is in the character of Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), father of future caped crusader Bruce, who is contemplating a run for mayor. So invested is Joker in making the wealthy and influential its putative villain that it makes the tin-eared decision of having Thomas the wannabe mayor disparage the majority of his potential electorate by calling them clowns. Not even Trump—whose bombastic exclamation of “I’m the only one who can fix this” gets paraphrased by the elder Wayne at one point—would be stupid enough to do that.
But imagine if you will a world where, instead of being a neighbor to ‘70s Martin Scorsese movies, Joker inhabits the morally ambiguous macro-verse of Breaking Bad. That series also pushed its protagonist into a life of crime, but it was also gutsy enough to have its crystal meth-cooking chemistry teacher embrace his villainy because, as it turns out, being a ruthless crime lord is kinda fulfilling.
Joker flirts with the idea of Arthur being a crime prodigy only in the most superficial of ways: After his first murder spree, he locks himself in a bathroom and calms himself with a demented version of tai chi, his hunched gait and awkward run giving way to a kind of deranged performance art. But again, Arthur is blameless, and the society that surrounds him is mostly a cipher—a convenient plot point devoid of contradiction or nuance—much like the next-door single mother (Zazie Beetz) that Arthur develops an almost-proprietary crush on, but whom we never really get to know.
Imagine a quid pro quo Joker that gave equal space to a society that is victimized as much as it is victimizer, that was mature enough to ask disturbing questions of responsibility instead of neatly assigning blame, that was adult enough to not let Arthur off the hook. That Joker would be insanely good.
Photographs from Warner Bros. Pictures