Director: Todd Phillips
Warner Bros. Pictures/DC Films/Join Effort/Bron Creative/Village Roadshow Pictures
There’s very little to unpack about Joker – unless you’re fascinated by the idea that a potentially compelling mental-health/system’s broken/America’s burning riff had to be hidden inside a comic book anti-hero/super-villain origin story. Anyone thinking that it’s a piece of Trojan Horse brilliance is possibly blown away, if you’ll pardon the pun, that Joe Rogan can host such long talks about weed…while…on weed!
Actually, Joker the movie, is a bit like The Joe Rogan Podcast. It promises a lot and occasionally delivers. Like the Rogan podcast it’s one of the dumbest versions of clever.
As Arthur Fleck, and, eventually, Joker, Joaquin Phoenix chews scenery and spits out greasepaint. He’s a clown that suffers from delusions and has a hacking-cough of a laugh, handing out cards to explain that it’s a condition, he can’t control it.
Director Todd Phillips can barely control this plot. So pleased with himself, so sure he’s saying something – and in fact for the first 45-60 minutes of running time he isn’t far off approximating a type of brilliance. The look and feel and grit and dark soul of this movie is wonderful.
Until it farcically trips over its own big clown shoes by stitching up the Batman/Joker connection and having Fleck trouble a young Bruce Wayne and chase after his dad, Thomas. The timeline is a blur, the continuity of it all is the biggest joke – as the gritty feel of a 70s Scorsese film moves into the 1980s, or is it the 1950s, or what the fuck is happening? Young master Wayne is what now? A baby in the 1980s…?
Anyway, Fleck wants to make it as a comic and between giving baths to his demented mother and fantasising over dating one of the neighbours in his building (Zazie Beetz) he watches clips of Murray Franklin, a Johnny Cason-styled talk show host, played by a bored Robert De Niro who seemed to think he was supposed to channel Tony Bennet for some unexplained reason.
Of course De Niro is there so that people can draw a long bow to Phillips referencing Taxi Driver, when in actual fact the movie that you’re better off seeing, or re-watching, is The King of Comedy where De Niro is in the “Joker” role and Jerry Lewis effectively lampoons himself.
There is so much beautiful, brilliant stuff in the first third/half of this movie that it’s only when you remember that the man who made Hated: GG Allin & The Murder Junkies also let The Hangover run long past its used-by date and into an absurd and embarrassing, convoluted trilogy, that you can start to see how a potential vision for something deep could be corrupted, tangled and then pissed all over.
Arthur is beaten up by street kids and subway jerks and then he snaps. And when he snaps it’s cold-blooded, dark as all fuck and precision profound.
But we have to circle back to this being a part of the wider Batman story. Right?
Phillips has two stories to tell here. One he wants to, and one he has to. And for any commentary around the dark capitalism of America and the eating out of its soul the Joker’s director must stand, take a bow, then slice his own neck with a pair of scissors. Because he knows, deep down, that only reason he got to make this film, and have it talked about, and attended in such huge numbers, was by selling the ruse of creating a grimly plotted action-hero movie with no real action; instead with black night of the soul (or soulless) intensity. But fuck that noise, because the real story is about a lunatic – a lunatic that doesn’t need to hide behind a purple vest and green hair dye.
Because, just over half-way through Joker the film turns – cosmically, but not really comically – into a stupid, dumb-as-a-bag-of-hammy-acting-gestures mess.
Yes, yes, Joaquin dances and minces and mugs beautifully. And he’s compelling to watch.
But the heart of this film is as cynical as casting Marc Maron in a bit-part because he’d sounded off about action-film blockbusters and/or has a ready-made podcast audience available and willing for free-ad plugs.
The heart of this film is lost.
And anyone telling you that it’s profound or disturbingly-clever or in need of deep analysis and repeat-watches is simply the kind of person that wants to seem smart without really trying.
Joker is a movie that, at first, seems sharp. And then decides to stop trying.
Arthur Fleck’s final monologue is embarrassing. It’s basically the “I would have gotten away with it if it weren’t for you meddling kids” speech from Scooby Doo. And then he still tries to get away with it.
The plot is gone by this point. Lost along with De Niro’s enthusiasm.
Joker is a frustrating failure of a film. There was a meme suggesting that it is Passion of the Christ for Juggalos. Beautiful. Nearly perfect. Funny to laugh at before seeing the film. But after seeing it I feel like more real effort and thought and heart went into that tweet-worthy rip than into most of the movie’s 122-minute running time.
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