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‘Joker’ is a Seemingly Provocative Yet Ultimately Empty Genre Exercise

Joker
Warner Bros.

With Joker being such a blatant homage to the works of Martin Scorsese and other filmmakers that told scuzzy New York dramas in the 1970s and 1980s, it’s interesting timing that Scorsese himself, while on the press tour for The Irishman, remarked that he doesn’t view Marvel movies and others like them as “cinema.” He went on to compare such films to “theme parks.”

The inevitable, yet overblown backlash to Scorsese underscores what Joker is attempting to do by adding an affectation of prestige over comic book material. Not only does Joker want to be a financially successful adaptation of a famous character, but it also wants to function as an uncompromising character study. A story that wishes to have the same underpinnings as the works of our greatest auteurs. It actively seeks unconditional validation as a work of high art — recognition from comic book lovers and cineastes alike. Basically, in terms of a stereotypical high school hierarchy, it wants to run with the jocks but garner the respect of the chess club.

I appreciate that pursuit, as impossible as it might be. Sadly, Joker fails to grasp what makes these classic dramas so great, succumbing to its own lackluster, nonspecific script.

The following review will be spoiler-free.

Synopsis

Directed By: Todd Phillips

Written By: Todd Phillips and Scott Silver

Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen, Shea Whigham, Bill Camp, and Glenn Fleshler

Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) is a clown-for-hire who aspires to become a comedian. Living at home with his mother (Conroy), he watches the Murray Franklin Show and hopes that the day will come when he gets his chance to live his dream as a true entertainer.

However, Arthur also struggles to cope with a severe mental illness. He seeks therapy and takes medication, but nothing ever seems to be enough. Arthur is also frequently isolated and bullied, which only exacerbates his difficulties.

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One bad decision leads to another, and Arthur’s descent spirals out of control, eventually transforming him into the mastermind known as The Joker.

We Truly Live in a Society

There was a palpable curiosity for Joker from the moment Warner Bros. said “go picture!” and announced plans for the movie to the world. When A-listers such as Joaquin Phoenix and Robert De Niro signed on shortly after, many wondered what on Earth this movie would be. Todd Phillips was adamant from the start that he was using IP to tell a more character-driven story on a large scale. Although I had my doubts considering his previous work as a filmmaker, I was still intrigued by the possibilities of it all. Instead of shaking his fists at the industry and complaining about the lack of expansive dramas, Phillips gamed the system by happily bending to its will while finding a loophole. Aside from a few mentions of Batman, Joker is a standalone film. I guess you could say he succeeded there.

Then news broke of a leaked script online…

It became obvious rather quickly that the script was one of the first few drafts — its date stamp was from before Phoenix even decided to sign on to the project. That didn’t stop the take cycle from starting, however. Many raised their concerns about the violence that the film contained, and how it may ultimately translate to real-world violence. These fears were only compounded by Joker‘s win of the Golden Lion award at the Venice Film Festival in September, essentially crowning the movie as a thing we would all have to discuss for months on end. (The past two Golden Lion winners, Roma and The Shape of Water, were both major Best Picture contenders. Obviously.)

And that’s when the discourse surrounding the film took another leap. Quite frankly, it was a discussion that I wasn’t particularly interested in as only a select few had seen the film until this past weekend, including myself. Not to mention blaming art for real-world problems takes the onus off of people themselves, but that’s a discussion deserving of its own article.

In a sense, Joker acted as a microcosm for how we discuss movies in the current hype cycle. By the time the movie releases, we’re already tired of it and ready to move on to the next subject. The irony of it all is that Joker isn’t very much of anything at all, amounting to a supremely undeveloped albeit well-intentioned look at mental illness along with unfocused diatribes that amount to “we live in a society.”

Comparisons to Joker‘s Influences

Provocation is absolutely vital for artists as they craft stories. Martin Scorsese and Sidney Lumet understood that idea when creating movies such as The King of Comedy, Taxi Driver, and Network, three of the painfully obvious reference points for Joker.

These films use provocative imagery and actions to elicit a strong emotional response to deeply complicated ideas. It’s the main reason why they’re so deeply resonant and impactful today. They also speak as to why it’s important not to condemn movies like Joker for diving into possibly fraught subject matter without seeing the film or fully unpacking it. Ultimately, it’s all about how these pieces are used and for what purpose. We get into trouble when we denounce all art for containing troubling material when we should only be condemning art that uses it incorrectly. It’s a key difference that sometimes gets lost in film criticism.

The King of Comedy, Taxi Driver, and Network parlay concepts of societal unrest and street-level violence into timeless ideas. All three movies circle around — or at least heavily focus on — a loner type. Someone who is clearly going through a mental breakdown or shows clear signs of illness.

The King of Comedy

The King of Comedy uses Rupert Pupkin to discuss our relationship with celebrities and advancing in our career paths. Scorsese is very thoughtful in how he captures Pupkin, carefully and subtlely playing with his delusional nature and using it to reflect on all of our self-aggrandizing tendencies.

Taxi Driver

Taxi Driver finds Travis Bickle as a veteran struggling with PTSD. The film released four years before PTSD was officially recognized by the American Psychiatric Association and was immensely groundbreaking in how we perceive soldiers who return to civilian life. Travis Bickle is also an intensely political analog for the distrust that was developing between American citizens and their political leaders in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. Senator Palantine wasn’t going to save New York City. Bickle, in his warped sense of reality, figured it his civic duty to take action and clean up the streets himself in his perverse way.

Network

While Network also focuses on many other characters too, a lot of the film’s pitch-black satire comes from Howard Beale played by the great Peter Finch. After having a breakdown on air, he’s paraded around by the television network because he elicited such a strong response from consumers which led to high ratings. He was the catalyst for unrest and frustration in the city and stood for an incredible indictment on media coverage.

Tying It All Together

So where does Joker fit in with these films? Well, it certainly tries to model these elements. Arthur Fleck is the bug and everyone else is the boot. He’s downtrodden, cast aside like the mounting trash all over Gotham. Also, Robert De Niro as Murray Franklin is such an overwhelming homage to The King of Comedy that he might as well have been wearing a shirt that said, “Hey, remember Rupert Pupkin?!?!” At least Joker has one of the better De Niro performances we’ve seen this decade. That’s not necessarily saying much considering his acting credits, but it’s a net gain in the end.

But that’s where the character exploration stops. Joker hits on many different ideas such as the need to care for the mentally ill, an eat-the-rich take on class differences, and even the effects of child abuse but offers no specificity to any of them. Joker is entirely derivative of these classic works without making any new comments on its own.

Arthur’s descent into madness, while superficially daring, is actually the plainest and by-the-numbers interpretation of such a character that you could come up with for this kind of story. Joker isn’t a stand-in for any kind of meaning. He’s merely movie crazy from the start and only gets more movie crazy by the end. Joker simply fails to understand what makes these films so great. It’s provocative skin really doesn’t matter, because it doesn’t use it for anything worthwhile. My expression through it all was basically “this is a load of barnacles” from Spongebob.

Image result for this is a load of barnacles

Todd Phillips, Screenwriter

Director Todd Phillips hasn’t exactly helped in relaying Joker‘s subtext to the general public, either. But what I find more interesting is that Phillips is arguably one of the most successful directors in Hollywood after earning a massive paycheck for the Hangover movies.

He took backend points instead of his usual director’s free for the first Hangover. Phillips made an otherworldly bet on himself and won. Big time. The success of those movies catapulted Phillips into rare company. Not only is he quietly one of the richest directors in Hollywood, but he’s also one of the few writer/director combos that still works with substantial budgets for content aimed at mature audiences. He’s worked almost exclusively with Warner Bros. ever since because of that success. He’s one of the few directors left with true power in the industry.

With that power comes a caveat, however. I see Phillips as a premier stylist, someone who takes exactly what’s on the page of a screenplay and forms it into a vibrant, kinetic picture. (He’s also terrific with actors.) The problem is that he’s also writing those screenplays, which often lack subtext and a sound structure. Those issues carry over to Joker as well.

If you ask me, Phillips paired with a top-tier screenwriter would be a match made in heaven. Joker is undoubtedly a dynamic and evocative production thanks to his efforts, but as I alluded to earlier, his work along with Scott Silver on the page is hopelessly standard. The film suffers as Arthur Fleck stumbles from one uncomfortable set piece to another, which feels more repetitive and unnecessary by the second. Seeing a character with ill-defined mental struggles lose his job, get bullied by over-the-top thugs, struggle with relationships, and live at home with his mother is beyond a cliché at this point.

You can see the gears turning to get Arthur from one stage of his psychosis to the next. What he’s feeling is always crystal clear when such a character should be having more of an internal struggle. With this kind of movie, you know that Arthur will eventually break bad. The problem is that Joker operates with an overwhelming sense of inevitability, using shorthand to get to its result. None of it is worse than Arthur’s dancing that is used throughout, which is the definition of film school BS.

Joaquin Phoenix is REALLY Trying

Joaquin Phoenix is going for broke as Arthur Fleck/Joker. He makes many of the most frustrating moments in Joker palatable because he is such a committed and terrific actor. The way he contorts his body to convey pain and awkwardness is nothing short of astonishing. Much has been made of the weight that he lost to appear weak and haunting, and it is well-deserved. Like all of his performances, he transformed into a character. Phoenix is Joker‘s saving grace.

Though in the grand scheme of things, taking stock of all of Phoenix’s performances, I would place Arthur Fleck in a lower tier. It all comes back to that lackluster script which hardly ever allows Phoenix to act subtly. On a scale from 1-10, he starts at a 10 in the first scene and ends up at a 1,098 by the third act, offering very little fluctuation because the character as written hardly allows for it. One awesome scene shows Arthur in a comedy club, clearly unsure of when to laugh. It’s electric stuff and one of the few scenes where Joaquin gets to use his larger than life expressions to hint at a deeper cognitive malfunction. Zazie Beetz and other members of the cast feel similarly wasted as mere plot contrivances.

We should all admire Phoenix’s commitment as a performer, but I find it a bit hyperbolic to call Arthur Fleck his career-best performance. Unless something else of titanic proportions comes around, that distinction will always go to Freddie Quell from The Master. (RIP to that poor toilet — it never stood a chance.)

Though I must say, Phoenix’s turn as the villain has evolved into a litany of great memes, which counts for something in the grand scheme of things.

Image result for joker hit by car meme

It’s Amazing What a Few Extra Million Will Do

I’ve made my stance on Joker fairly clear — at least I sure hope so! The fact remains that many people are positively gushing over Joker. I believe a lot of that stems from the atmosphere that the film creates, which is undeniably impressive. Cinematographer Lawrence Sher, production designer Mark Friedberg, and composer Hildur Guðnadóttir have all done a remarkable job in their various roles. Honestly, Joker might be the best looking movie of 2019.

Their work makes Joker feel like a profound work by masking the film’s issues in striking imagery and music, even if they’re used rather obviously from time to time. (A single cello ringing menacingly in the background during Joker’s interpretive dance sequence borders on artsy-fartsy nonsense.) The film uses a lot of colors with a brown or blue tint, quietly highlighting the stark, disgusting nature of Gotham. Street scenes with trash piling up on the corners are equally impressive.

The truth is that we hardly see so many resources poured into a drama. The scope that Joker offers is unparalleled for its aims. I was overpowered at times even though I struggled with the content itself. For those that tend to let a film wash over them, Joker might blow their mind.

Final Thoughts

In the end, I appreciate that Joker exists, even with all my frustrations with it and the frankly nauseating discourse surrounding it. We’re inundated with sameness in the movie marketplace, and I appreciate that a blockbuster, while still supremely unoriginal and not very clever, can shake the mold of light, fluffy, and safe entertainment for a change.

I see Joker and its box office success as a stepping stone for better things to come down the pipeline. A sacrificial lamb for more thoughtful creative teams to take into consideration as they pitch movie ideas to ever-growing corporations.

Without looking ahead to future possibilities, however, I don’t see much merit in Joker other than its surface elements: beautiful production design, a memorable score, and capable acting. The script is never as intelligent as it thinks it is which forces every other element to strain to keep everything intact. Layers don’t exist.

Loosely defined rage is never a good base to a film, especially for a film that wishes so desperately to hold a microscope to *ahem* society.

Grade: C


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Nick Kush

A current young professional in the greater D.C. area, Nick founded MovieBabble in October of 2016 and hasn't look back since! Nick is also a member of the Internet Film Critics Society and the Washington DC Film Critics Association. You can follow Nick on Twitter @nkush42

8 Responses

  1. oishmortal says:

    The movie is an emotion. Loved it 💜

  2. Seeing how this is going to be the first entry of DC Black, which is separate from the DC Extended Universe and serves as a way for Warner Bros. to go experimental with DC’s characters, which ones would you like to see them try? Personally, I’d like to see a supernatural mystery flick with “Resurrection Man”. “Sandman” (the one popularized by Neil Gaiman) would also be a good pick for this. Any “out there” choices that you’re able to come up with?

    • Nick Kush says:

      So that ‘DC Black’ label hasn’t been officially announced by WB — it seems that they had some reservations about putting labels on anything at this moment. BUT, I definitely think they’ll take on some experimental films, label or not. I don’t have a particular character in mind, I’d just prefer stranger movies in general!!! lol

  3. Interesting analysis. I have to say, though, that I find Taxi Driver less a thoughtful portrayal of PTSD than one of the many “crazy Vietnam veteran” cliches that were popular back in the 1970s.

    • Nick Kush says:

      Interesting! Obviously I disagree 🙂 I appreciate how Scorsese shows that he can function in society — wooing Cybill Shepherd, etc. — unlike many other iterations of that character where they literally have no connection with society at all. I think there’s a warmth and understanding there in those sequences for the character. You slowly see his cracks over time until it all goes haywire in the third act. Yes, it definitely is slightly over-the-top by the end, but Scorsese let’s that build over time, which makes that break seem like a function of tragedy within the story and not because of a PTSD cliche. A lot of it also goes hand in hand with how grimey NYC was at the time — it certainly lends to a more provocative take. Although, I definitely agree with you in some sense — there’s plenty of bad takes on damaged soldier out there!

  4. Nick Kush says:

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