On July 20, 2012, a gunman opened fire in a screening of “The Dark Knight Rises.” Twelve people lost their lives. The shooter’s hair was dyed red, and in the days that followed, a rumor circulated that he had been impersonating the Joker, attempting to emulate the fictional mass murderer. Now, this rumor has been thoroughly debunked—James Holmes was not trying to look like the Joker—but it’s a story that won’t go away. The fact remains: In our daily lives, the Joker’s image is all around us, while the closest we ever get to a real Batman comes from the Make-a-Wish foundation.
So perhaps it’s no surprise that we’re now facing “Joker,” an apparently stand-alone film dedicated to dissecting the sadistic clown, sans caped crusader. Armed with an A-list actor and an admittedly-striking atmosphere, “Joker” has kidnapped the discourse—and maybe even the zeitgeist—like no other comic-book adaptation of late. It’s not that the film is taking up more space than its peers, it’s the prestige and attention “Joker” demands that sets it apart—prestige and attention it does not deserve.
This is a bad, meaningless movie masquerading as a relevant and pressing motion picture; this is a movie that thinks its sh*t doesn’t stink. Co-written and directed by “Hangover” helmsman Todd Phillips, “Joker” rattles along with an unearned assurance until the credits roll. You’ll be glad when they finally arrive.
There’s a lot of pain on screen: This time around, the sad clown has a name. He is “Arthur Fleck,” and all he has are negative thoughts. “Ironic” then, that he works as a party clown making minimum wage, living on the poverty line in a degrading, ’80s Gotham City. He lives with his mother, and suffers from psychotic fits of laughter. He dreams of becoming a successful standup, though neither he nor his film are ever particularly funny.
The movie’s screenplay lacks any sort of inciting incident, some clear or clever trigger for Arthur’s breakdown. Instead, his descent is a forced conclusion, the obvious and only endpoint for this character. This is perspective without point-of-view—we spend more than enough time in Arthur’s head, but the movie can’t muster a position on its protagonist or the environment he wallows in.
Phillips and cinematographer Lawrence Sher attempt to elevate proceedings by draping “Joker” in the trappings of better movies, specifically early Scorsese stuff like “Taxi Driver” and “King of Comedy.” There are also shades of Fincher’s “Fight Club” and star Joaquin Phoenix’s far superior “You Were Never Really Here.” But the difference is that those movies have a point. Those movies justify their grit with ample commentary on the worlds they construct and the people they examine. Those movies aren’t pretending they matter—they just do.
But “Joker” is a major studio picture in 2019 with a $60 million production budget, looking to reach the largest audience possible. Phillips goes out of his way to leave his work open to any and all possible interpretations—the results are an obnoxious example of how you can’t have your cake and eat it too. If Phillips had actually tried to say something—about capitalism or masculinity or any of the other themes “Joker” glances at and then discards—he’d have risked alienating some of his massive audience. Instead, the movie doesn’t just lack ideology, it seems to have a second-grader’s grasp on the concept of principles.
Or maybe Phillips really has the intellectual capacity of a second-grader. “Go try to be funny nowadays with this woke culture,” Phillips told “Vanity Fair,” adding that no one funny is working in comedy today because they’re afraid of offending people. “What’s outstanding to me in this discourse in this movie is how easily the far left can sound like the far right when it suits their agenda,” he told “The Wrap.”
I mention these remarks because I think that the filmmaker behind “Joker” is an idiot. I think you can see it from his movie too, and unlike “Joker,” I’m not too much of a coward to actually have a stance on what I’m addressing. Context matters, and the titular character remains a terrifying symbol. But who really thinks daddy issues are the key to this figure’s psyche? Phillips has never produced anything with an emotional backbone before—“Joker” is no exception.
I suppose I should talk about Joaquin Phoenix’s much-hyped performance. He’s abundantly fine. Here, he’s an artist without a canvas, and this lack of direction translates into a performance that’s derivative of his prior, better work in “The Master,” “You Were Never Really Here” and “Her.” This thing is just less than the sum of its parts. Sher’s cinematography shows some actual polish and quality, but Phillips doesn’t know how to use his camera effectively—“Joker” has no coherent or consistent visual vocabulary, squandering any formal potential the period-setting promises. But we get it, you’ve seen “Taxi Driver.”
That’s “Joker’s” only real, insidious trick: It resembles the type of movie worth driving to the multiplex to see, when really it’s just a cynical Xerox of one. It has less than nothing to say, yet so many—both those who’ve seen it and those who haven’t—are awkwardly convinced of this movie’s significance. With reflections of the clown prince all around us (after all, we do live in a society), maybe it’s time we reckon with our interest and obsession with this supervillain. But that’s not what “Joker” does, and if you walk into the theater thinking it will, well, the joke’s on you.