It can only be viewed as some cruel cosmic swirl that in the immediate wake of Martin Scorsese’s dismissal of comic book movies as “not cinema,” but “theme parks,” the world has now been bestowed a film that leverages its iconic comic book inspiration to shamelessly imitate Scorsese’s late-‘70s/early-‘80s era of festering psyches in a world of decay. If not a theme park, Joker is a dread carnival, a relentlessly bleak tome of psychopathic origins that understands neither psychopathy nor origin stories, which operates under the naïve assumption that unrelenting nastiness somehow automatically results in gritty cinematic profundity.
Put simpler, it’s precisely the kind of “dark, serious departure” you might expect to come from the director of The Hangover movies. Todd Phillips’ Joker represents the first straight dramatic feature in the director’s filmography, a transition that, in Phillips’ view, was apparently inevitable. “Go try to be funny nowadays in this woke culture,” he said in a recent Vanity Fair interview. “It’s hard to argue with 30 million people on Twitter. You just can’t do it, right? So you just go, ‘I’m out.’” By this logic, effective comedy must only be irreverent to the point of offensive shock. Anything that doesn’t meet that standard isn’t worth it, thanks to the SJWs on Twitter. Therefore, Phillips’ only path, by his own admission, is to pivot to a completely humorless form of cinema.
To that end, he’s succeeded, since Joker seems to have had its sense of humor excised from its body. The empty hole is filled with faux psychology, indulgent violence, and simple-minded stereotypes of women, people of color, and the mentally ill that are – try as Phillips might to avoid the designation – offensive. Of course, there are also a handful of fleeting references to the DC Comics universe, always an eye-rolling proposition, though it feels especially cynical in this would-be Deep and Meaningful film.
Joker is, if possible, the most intentionally not-funny movie I’ve ever witnessed, willfully engineering itself to not generate a single laugh – not darkly, not ironically, not even accidentally. It is just a dreary cloud that hangs over the audience for two hours, static and stubborn in its mission to never exhibit a hint of levity, not even for the sake of nuance. One could argue, “that’s the point!”, and indeed, it is: for someone like Phillips, whose career has been predicated on the lowest common denominator of movie comedy, the perceived threat of encroaching cultural enlightenment has resulted in this hostile filmic reaction: if comedy can’t be as offensive as Phillips deems necessary, then the result must be something as dramatically monotone, emotionally inert, and perpetually nasty as Joker. Take that, Twitter.
Joaquin Phoenix stars as the iconic supervillain, in a performance that is already considered a frontrunner for the Best Actor Oscar. It’s certainly the kind of scenery-chewing display that will catch the eye of industry voters, but it sort of seems like an easy copycat job for an actor who sort of specializes in psychological oddity. This version of the Joker feels like an amalgam of the roles Phoenix has played for Paul Thomas Anderson, with some sad clown makeup disguising the lack of quirky zeal. It doesn’t help that the movie itself lacks any sort of propulsive energy, nor that the screenplay fails to offer any clarity of the character’s underlying pathos, so Phoenix is often left stranded as the object of the film’s clueless-yet-smug depiction of villainous origins.
In terms of that cluelessness, Joker is a showcase of terrible stereotype peddling. It can’t decide whether impoverished party clown Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) is a sad-sack whose eventual descent into evil stems from his severe mental illness, or whether society grinds him to a state where his only response is extreme violence. Either way, it is very intent on generating pity from the audience, simultaneously a self-satisfied exploitation of the struggles of mental illness and a Freshman-level presentation of societal decay. Less savory still, the cursory representations of discrimination are all either racially-based, gender-based, or a combination of the two. The film’s inciting incident for Arthur’s madness is a Latino gang that beats Arthur up, just for fun. On a city bus ride, a black mother scolds him when he makes innocent funny faces at her son. He then visits the local health clinic, where the black woman social worker (Sharon Washington) doesn’t listen and doesn’t care. At home, Arthur takes care of his ailing mother (Frances Conroy), whose own questionable mental state may be the ultimate source of Arthur’s plight. Very clearly, Phillips and co-writer Scott Silver want to flip conventional expectations of every character in every scene, but there is not even a hint of ironic catharsis in depicting women and people of color as the primary oppressive forces in this white man’s story.
Down the rabbit hole Arthur goes, stalking his late-night talk show host idol in a quest for validation, a blatant riff on The King of Comedy with the kicker that Robert De Niro plays the late-night host. It’s a flimsy and thankless role in a subplot that lacks any heft or relevance. That’s about par for the course in Joker, which in every regard is a facile and perfunctory allegory about comedy’s death at the hands of a vicious PC mob. It’s not cinema – it’s a theme park for incels.