I feel like if Todd Phillips were actually the next Martin Scorsese, we'd have known it by now.
Directed by Todd Phillips
Written by Scott Silver and Todd Phillips
Spoiler alert: moderate (maybe technically high, but you know how this one's gonna end, and in pretty fine detail, by, like, the twenty minute mark)
The one thing I unambivalently enjoy about Joker is that it exists: unlike the Marvel movies, which are often good yet so committed to conformity that they've now just started shoving round pegs into square holes in the service of their neverending metanarrative, the DC movies have been off the rails since time immemorial, and they've usually given us something new, weird, exciting, and, in many cases, extremely pompous. Not always actually good. Joker is not good. But when Todd Phillips came to Warner Bros. and told them he wanted to make a street-level R-rated period piece psychodrama about Batman's archenemy, with the intent of holding a mirror up to society and asking if we recognized the clown we saw, Warner Bros. replied, "who gives a fuck? it's only extremely valuable intellectual property." And that's fantastic. I mean it.
On the other hand, random flailing doesn't always pay off, though one can make a superficial case for Joker both as a commercial proposition (especially in hindsight, now that ginned-up controversy and the curiosity of rubes like me have propelled it to a record-setting October opening weekend) and as a worthy piece of art. The problem is, it mostly is a superficial case: Joker's shallow and surprisingly clumsy in its unrelenting miserablism. Other than the presence of the Joker iconography itself (which would be hard to separate from the film, in the sense that if you took it out, it would have almost no impact whatsoever), it's clear that what Phillips wanted to do was make a mental illness drama and social satire that played with theoretically-dangerous notions of how individual acts of violence shape collective thought, but not "a superhero movie" as such, nor even a superhero deconstruction, but he also had no idea how to actually do this in any cohesive way, and therefore used the Joker as a crutch while he approached his project in the manner of so many grim-'n'-gritty comic book writers before him—that is, by throwing dourness at the superhero genre until it was "adult," and sufficiently resembled other grim-'n'-gritty things that Phillips had seen and thought were cool.
This director of comedies, aging and, by his own report, increasingly-bitter (despite having no identifiable motivation whatsoever to be bitter), has made it pretty plain over his last couple of films that he wants to be Martin Scorsese so, so bad. His first attempt was his arms dealer GoodFellas, War Dogs. Now there's Joker, which is an explicit homage, and which I gauge was received well at Venice because film people, like many people, simply get pleasure out of being shown something they recognize, in this case a mash-up of Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy. (It even has the stunt-cast Robert De Niro to prove it.) Hell, I'll happily admit that this sounds like a perfect fit for a Joker origin story, assuming you want one of those to begin with. There's a possible version of Joker that actually does this Tarantinian-but-with-extremely-famous-movies remix thing well. Sometimes that righteous premise even punches through the actual mediocrity we got. It's better at being a Taxi Driver than anything else, only without the novelty or the intensity or the danger—the movie is palpably afraid of losing our sympathies, and while it's fitfully very violent, every last one of the Joker's victims is an objectified cipher marked as deserving, while anybody who isn't deserving is only ever in a purely notional sort of danger, making our antihero the kinder, gentler Travis Bickle. Meanwhile, I feel like it just has no idea what King of Comedy was even about, except it was about a violent comedian.
It's not an equal to its primary influences, nor to the bits and pieces of superheroic lore it incorporates, like The Killing Joke and The Dark Knight Returns (and of course The Dark Knight, plus, surprisingly, the '89 Batman, and the "Joker as viral phenomenon" thing was done on Gotham). Then again, it's no crime to not be equal to Martin Scorsese or Alan Moore or Frank Miller. Yet it possibly isn't the equal to the 70s movie it's really remaking, which is Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, the sixth-best Planet of the Apes film. There was an ambiguity to Caesar's reaction to the violence he'd unleashed that's delicious; the Joker's just gonna Joker, but it's not clear that this Joker would.
So it has events more than a plot, fitting in with Phillips' goal of a pseudo-naturalistic character study. The plot it does have is a gauntlet—an extension of The Killing Joke's "one bad day" concept to a fortnight—in which Arthur Fleck (Jaoquin Phoenix) experiences various hardships that push him further toward the edge. Naturally, he was already pretty close, thanks to a cluster of mental problems and an off-putting neurological condition that compels him to laugh when he's anxious or scared. His mother (Frances Conroy) made attempts in his childhood to comfort him by explaining that his laughter meant he wanted to make people happy (though even this isn't really insisted upon, because in the here-and-now his mother isn't a character so much as she is a miasma). This is the only onscreen explanation we get for Arthur's deeply-held aspiration to be a stand-up comedian, despite "uncontrollable laughter" being one of the very few disabilities that could disqualify one from that job.
Arthur's been supporting himself and his mother, somehow, with a job as a rent-a-clown, but he's not great at that, either, getting beaten up on the sidewalk and ultimately fired when the gun he'd started carrying for protection plops out of his waistband in front of a hospital ward full of cancer children. It's very much downhill from there: his favorite late-night talk show host mocks his disastrous comedy debut; he learns new facts about what kind of mother he really has; and he pines for the understanding of the woman who lives down the hall (Zazie Beetz, and Joker never demonstrates less confidence nor more contempt than when it plays out a series of flashbacks to hammer home that every scene of her in Arthur's company was a delusion, like Phillips thought he was revealing the true identity of Tyler Durden here). Not to mention, Arthur's dealing with the fallout from wasting three drunken, abusive "Wall Street guys" (somehow the idea of "Wall Street guys" in Gotham City makes me actually angry) on the subway. And by "dealing with the fallout," what I mean is that he's figuring out exactly how much he liked it.
There's an argument to be made that Joker's Joker is the worst cinematic Joker, and not solely because its chronology suggests the possibility of Batman beating up a 70 year old anorexic. I don't know if I'd make this argument myself: there's still Jared Leto's nu-metal Joker, and "worst" sounds, well, worse than it is, like it's complete garbage, and I certainly don't think Joker is that. But if I were to make that argument, I'd argue this: Joker's Joker is just plain wrong. Once things get rolling, Arthur becomes, let's say, radicalized, and he commits violence in pursuit of an agenda—one that is more akin to "I don't like being on the margins of society, personally" than "marginalization is a systemic evil," because Arthur isn't a terribly thoughtful guy, but he's certainly mad as hell and not going to take it anymore. It's easy to see why, but it's not so easy to see how that turns him into the Joker. So: this is the social activist Joker. The Joker who's real concerned about justice. You know, that iconic character.
And maybe that could work, only not with Phillips' and Phoenix's inarticulate underground man. The Joker, in virtually every modern incarnation—comics, cartoon, television, film—has embraced absurdity. This one doesn't. He has a line where he notes that his life is not a tragedy, but a comedy, but I don't believe he believes that. But the Joker is comedy: he has not always been funny, though I think the best Jokers pursue violent absurdity in such a way that you might occasionally laugh at the meaningless chaos they've caused, which (in their view) is no more meaningless or chaotic than regular old life. But nearly every Joker is capable of self-amusement; it's almost the only emotion they are capable of. The showmanship, the terrorism, the bad gags and the clownish accoutrements: that's just how the Joker keeps from being bored. There's not much showmanship to this Arthur, and even less self-satisfaction, other than his penchant for dorky dancing (which is a fabulous grace note, that the film maybe drives into the ground a little bit). Arthur's laughter is obviously a stand-in for tears, and there's never really a moment where that line gets blurred. There's scarcely a moment where this Joker experiences pleasure, where he gets away with something; the few moments he does are by far the best things it has going for it. There's been a big conversation around this dumb movie about whether it's irresponsible, and Lord, it would've been much better if it was. Only in the final sequence—let's call it "final," though it's technically "penultimate," because it should've been the final sequence—does Phillips arrive upon something operatic, powerful, and worthy of his subject. But then, maybe I'm responding just as much to the misjudged direct connections to the wider Bat-universe, which revolve around various brazenly stupid plot contrivances that require this Joker to be rather feeble-minded himself.
As for Phoenix, we get an acting exercise in search of a character—which isn't wholly surprising. Phoenix often supplies a big wad of technical skills in lieu of a performance, though his very-similar role in You Were Never Really Here is put together in ways that still feel like a character (albeit as much through Lynne Ramsay's control of subjectivity as through Phoenix), despite the fact that Never Really Here's Joe is much less of a person. Either way, it was a far cry from this showboating Oscar reel, which combines dingy naturalism with semi-random noises and a faintly-grotesque physical transformation (scapula fans have a new favorite movie). Like the character he's playing, Phoenix works best as poseable imagery: when he's dancing, or when he's cackling in agony, or when he's staring straight ahead and you can practically see the broken gears, and Lawrence Sher's absolutely terrific cinematography places little glowing red coals in the back of his eyes, Joker is even mildly excellent. (And Sher is blatantly Joker's deadliest weapon: besides fully capturing the throwback "1981" aesthetic in every frame, there's that eye lighting, the very-subtly-distorting lens choices, and the way Sher makes this Joker, in his final form, look like a purple-and-yellow stain. Sher, alongside production and costume designers Mark Friedberg and Mark Bridges, almost make Joker worth recommending. Almost.)
So, yeah: there's something in Phoenix's performance that isn't complete, but it has its moments. It's decent when great was necessary, offering a Joker who never comes together the way Heath Ledger's did—a high bar, sure, but, you know, maybe not an unfair one. Rarely is it that he or Phillips manage to offer any particular insight into this Arthur Fleck on his own terms, either, which considering the nature of Joker is potentially the bigger sin. If this villain's journey sometimes transcends the phony, off-brand material, there's the majority of the movie where it doesn't, so that Joker is, on average, just variations on "this is sad!" being pounded into your eyes for two hours. (And your ears: the grating three or four notes that Hildur Guðnadóttir has decided to call her "score" is the objectively worst thing about Joker.) It's another disappointment in a year full of 'em, which is a shame because I don't like being scolded by people who think that there shouldn't be self-aggrandizing violence in a movie about the freaking Joker, and I was kinda looking forward to defending it.