Directed by: Todd Phillips
Written by: Todd Phillips & Scott Silver
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy
Stories are meant to have a purpose and those that follow through with it reach successful heights. Trying to take on too many different ideas can leave a story feeling empty, which proves to be the case of this iteration of the famous comic book villain. In its attempt to be “deep” and about something, it shows a lack of depth in a story that has a bunch of ideas thrown at the wall and a director not deft enough to explore them.
Working as a party clown for hire and aspiring to be a comedian, Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) takes care of his sick mother and relies on social services for medication and counseling. Arthur has a condition that makes him laugh uncontrollably whenever he feels uncomfortable, which lands him in trouble at the most inopportune times. Through this story, Arthur sees that those around him and in power don’t care about people like him and he starts to learn ways to fight back.
No villain has reached the popularity that borders on surpassing the superhero they’re pit against more than the Joker. Through the decades since his inception, he has been portrayed as a mob boss, an anarchist, and in many other ways. It seemed like an impossible task for anyone else to take on this character after the Academy-Award winning performance by Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight. Warner Brothers tried it again and with one of the great actors of this generation, Joaquin Phoenix. It’s a shame they forgot to surround him with a story with any complete thoughts.
The plot of Joker tries to take on so many deep societal issues that it doesn’t end up saying anything remotely resonant about them. Many have said that this film holds a mirror up to society, but I have a hard time seeing exactly what was displayed in that reflection. Arthur relies on social services for help with his condition, which gets shut down for ominous reasons. Okay, what about it? There’s a moment that galvanizes the citizens of Gotham to see the clown as a voice for the people against the wealthy, but Joker fails to define the people of Gotham to make it believable that one act by some faceless person would lead to some revolution. It’s made clear throughout the story that Arthur has no political stance, which makes no narrative sense with the decisions he makes towards the end. There’s a plotline about his lineage that is beyond laughable and I find it baffling that it made it through all of the approvals to make it into the final cut. So what is the messaging of the film? Be nice to people or they’ll end up killing you? It’s so basic and amateurish but what else could be expected by who directed it.
It’s obvious that director Todd Pillips was way out of his depth with this film and in attempts to be like Martin Scorsese, he shows that all he can only badly mimic the style of superior filmmakers. Joker has several scenes that show that Phillips has seen great films like Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy but did not understand what made them timeless classics. Those films actually had a fleshed-out story. Phillips made his name in the comedy world with The Hangover trilogy, which became a massive case of repeating the same film three times to diminishing returns. He lacked any real conviction with the story with one specific example clearly making that case. There’s a scene where Fleck walks into someone’s apartment and just sits down, the reaction to that moment creates dread, except that Phillips decides to lay out everything to explain that moment. It did not need explanation but he went ahead and spoon-fed the audience the information and therefore taking away any of the tension built. With this swing, he wanted to step up into the big leagues and be viewed as prestige filmmaker, but this basic and insipid narrative proves he’s nowhere close.
While the plot has its issues, Joker really loses its way with how Arthur interacts with people of color and what they represent in this story. The most prominent one being Sophie portrayed by Zazie Beats. Arthur’s relationship with her serves as an indication of what people of color, particularly black women, symbolize in this film, which is the personification of roadblocks in his journey. Looking through every person of color in the film, they either abuse Arthur or fail to give him what he wants, and they summarize this “broken society” he seems to live in. Every casting decision has a purpose and I’m stuck in-between believing Todd Phillips purposely made it that way or him not fully grasping how it comes across on screen. Either way does not fare well for him.
The main draw besides the intellectual property of Joker is, without a doubt, Joaquin Phoenix. Easily one of the best actors of this century and always willing to take on difficult projects and work with some of the best directors. With this performance, much has been said about the difficulty of shooting and all of the weight he’s lost during the process. I found the performance to be good but it bordered on performance art after a while. It depends too much on showing how tortured he could be with the way he contorts his body and uncontrollably laughs, which is catnip for appreciation from other actors. This type of performance follows others that rely on an actor being so method that it becomes disturbing for others and has become tiresome. As acting legend Laurence Olivier once said, “Why don’t you just try acting?” I appreciate actors who can put together incredible performances without trying so hard to be method and I just find myself enjoying those performances more at this point in life. Phoenix delivers as he always does as Arthur but the performance became distracting, which only makes a bad film worse.
Technical elements of this film certainly stand out as its best assets with a haunting score by Hildur Guðnadóttir. The way she makes certain scenes feel like a horror film does the heavy lifting the narrative fails to do. It creates tension and any fear meant to be surrounded by this character. Unfortunately, it was underutilized and one scene, in particular, saw the filmmakers use a song that makes no sense only to cut to the score later instead of employing it the whole time. The cinematography captures a rundown Gotham and has certain shots that look spectacular.
Taking on this character through this lens remains an admirable try but it’s been placed in the wrong hands. Two writers who don’t understand the plight of the underprivileged but want to make a story about revolution. A story that tries to throw all of these different ideas at the wall and nothing sticks because they didn’t care to dive deeper than the surface. If you want a better-told story with a complicated protagonist starring Joaquin Phoenix, I recommend Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here, which came out just last year but it didn’t have the clown title so most have not seen it.