Joker (Todd Phillips, 2019) 1 out of 4 stars.
A relentlessly bleak tale of despair and anger, director Todd Phillips’s Joker features a blistering collection of mannerisms masquerading as emotional truths in lead actor Joaquin Phoenix’s performance, and not much else. For sure, there is mental illness, class-based rage, simmering violence brought to a sudden boil and then plenty of blood, but what does it all amount to, in the end? With all its plot points, reversals and ostensible narrative surprises underlined in heavy crayon, what passes for meaning gets lost in the sophistic philosophizing. Yes, the extreme rich are selfish and often insensitive and, possibly, evil, but so what? Who doesn’t know that, already? Still, at least it looks great, the splatter of brain matter and viscera hitting the lens with just the right lighting to make it pop.
The manufactured controversy about the film’s apparent violent message gets it all wrong: Joker is not pro-nihilism, even as it portrays the origin story of a master of chaos. He’s our protagonist, but even someone paying only half attention would get that he’s deeply disturbed and not exactly a model to emulate. No, the real problem is the facile way the very real economic divisions of our world are exploited as simplistic plot contrivances. Based on a comic book though this may be, Phillips (The Hangover) – given the seriousness of tone and dark palette of the visual aesthetic – acts as if he’s remaking Taxi Driver, which helps explain the presence of that film’s lead, Robert De Niro, in an important supporting role, but does not excuse the vacuity of the expositional dialogue.
Phoenix (so much better in last year’s You Were Never Really Here) plays Arthur Fleck, a lonely middle-aged man with an apparently incurable condition leading him to laugh uncontrollably at inappropriate times, whose behavioral idiosyncrasies have led to the one job he can handle, that of a street clown twirling ad signs on sidewalks. When we first see him, he’s putting on the white makeup for that gig, setting up the visual foreshadowing of the villain he will become. Jumped on the street, his sign stolen, he gives chase, getting the bejeezus knocked out of him as a result. If monster he will become, he’s a weak one, to start.
Another issue that has come out in the run-up to the movie’s release is its storyline involving mental illness, but the fact that the Joker, superhero Batman’s arch-nemesis, is criminally insane is hardly new to this latest iteration. I’m no expert, but how else to explain his homicidal mania? I think, however, that what might bother some advocates is the painstaking manner in which Phillips and company lay the groundwork for the tragedy behind Arthur’s current state, as well as the empathy they ask us to feel for him, thereby perhaps implying that anyone you might see suffering through psychosis or other crisis could be a master criminal in waiting. I see it more as character development, though not a particularly nuanced one.
Joining in the mayhem is Frances Conroy (Ruth Fisher from HBO’s Six Feet Under) as Penny Fleck, Arthur’s mother; Zazie Beetz (Sollers Point) as a winsome neighbor; the aforementioned De Niro as a late-night talk-show host (thereby doubling the Scorsese references with his additional connection to The King of Comedy); and Brett Cullen (River Guard) as a particularly obnoxious Thomas Wayne, father to the future caped crusader (who makes an appearance as boy Bruce). They’re mostly acceptable, though Cullen goes broad (not as much as Phoenix, however) in his attempt to really sell the billionaire baseness. As stuffed as the fat cats are meant to be, however, the cinematic manor in which they here reside is really just an empty shell that thinks it’s full. The Joker’s cackle, in other words, is but a shrill shriek into the void.