JOKER (Movie Review)

* out of ****
Rated R
(for strong bloody violence, disturbing behavior, strong language, and brief sexual images)
Released: October 4, 2019
Runtime: 121 minutes
Directed by: Todd Phillips
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen, Shea Whigham, Bill Camp, Marc Maron, Glenn Flesher, Douglas Hodge

In a tragic age of recurring mass shootings in the United States, Joker makes a rather peculiar case to explain it: blame the victim.

America, no doubt, has its issues. There wouldn’t be gun violence if it didn’t. But director Todd Phillips goes beyond humanizing the kind of barbaric, cold-blooded assassin that has emerged over the last twenty years to actually sympathizing with him, and he does it under the guise of hijacking a DC Comics icon.

Tracking an arc from amoral to immoral, Joker explores cultural decay and the violence it breeds in simplistic broad strokes — and make no mistake, this gets graphically, disturbingly violent. It’s a shallow ripoff of Martin Scorsese’s New York City-set classics from the 1970s and early 80s (the same era in which Phillips depicts this real-world Gotham) and it lacks the nuance, insight, or discernible compass to comment on the troubles it examines (mental illness and class inequality among them) with any sort of moral clarity.

What made those Scorsese / De Niro antiheros resonate with critics and audiences rather than offend them (a.k.a. Travis Bickle of Taxi Driver and Rupert Pupkin in The King of Comedy) is that, even in considering how the country’s problems played into the formation of those fictional sociopaths, their forms of vigilante justice were rightly viewed as a step too far. Even if some of the victims deserved a comeuppance or actual prosecution, it didn’t justify the fates that those titular psychos meted out.

Moreover, Bickle’s and Pupkin’s escalating paranoia turned actual innocents into targets or, at the very least, unconscionable collateral damage. The dangers and enemies those characters saw and feared were perceived, not real, and increasingly skewed in the vacuums of their pathologies, conjuring slights and mockery from normal everyday people who were simply trying to navigate peculiar, invasive, schizophrenic behavior.

But in Joker, perception is the actual reality and nearly everyone’s got what’s coming to them. For Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), the insecure rent-a-clown and failed stand-up comedian who becomes the Joker, his victimhood is real, not perceived, and it’s all-encompassing. The facile banalities that prop up his victimhood are bad enough, as is the gratuitous violence, but pitying a brutal killer to the point of turning him into a public folk hero isn’t provocative or humanizing; it’s downright irresponsible.

In making a movie so singularly from Fleck’s perspective – which sees everybody who is more personally and professionally successful than him as bullies (i.e. nearly everyone), from Thomas Wayne’s white privilege archetype on down – Phillips goes further than explaining the Joker’s inevitable brutality; he cluelessly justifies it, if stopping short of outright condoning it. By the time the carnage is complete and the credits roll, I wanted to be able to turn to Phillips and ask, “What the hell were you thinking?”

The cause-and-effect of how Fleck becomes the Joker is an embarrassingly reductive form of pop psychology: people are mean, cruel, and unkind, and the meek targets of their nastiness will go on a rampage if taken off their meds. Yes, there are some forms of truth echoing around in here but Phillips barely scratches those surfaces, using them without actually examining them. When a killer’s psychosis is abridged to a formula, it reduces credible factors to movie clichés.

Furthermore, with this film’s POV being as one-sidedly empathetic to the title character, Joker runs the risk of rationalizing the same course of nihilism to a viewer who identifies with Fleck’s incel persona. I doubt (or at least hope) that much of the concern about what Joker may inspire will amount to excessive hysteria and nothing more (see also A Clockwork Orange, which was met with similar worries on its release), but I can certainly understand why people find the film so worrisome. It’s playing with fire it doesn’t know how to control, and so who knows what it might spark.

It can also be surprisingly stupid, most notably in the finale. I won’t spoil it, but it involves a moment on live television in a controlled broadcast environment that makes absolutely no sense. There comes a point when a shocking fact is revealed but nothing is done about it. In the real world (which this purports to reflect), immediate action would’ve been taken. Here, however, none is, and rather inexplicably. I was gobsmacked. The scene continues to unfold, of course, because the movie needs it to, which is indicative of the how fast and loose the entire film plays with its plotting and the weak validations that drive it.

To top it all off, this Joker isn’t even a fair approximation of the character he appropriates. Historically, in all of his incarnations (even the goofy ones), the Joker has been The Clown Prince of Crime (emphasis added to make the point), a mastermind who, while willing to put innocent lives in danger, had grander schemes at play and was a formidable intellect that Batman had to contend with. The Joker truly was a criminal. Here, he’s an aggrieved trigger-happy anarchist and nothing more.

Yes, Joaquin Phoenix gives an absolutely mesmerizing, method-level performance that lives up to every plaudit he’s received (the infamous cackle itself is given a grieving, heartbreaking twist), but it is the director’s responsibility (not the actor’s) to give that performance a proper context, and Phillips fails miserably at doing so. As a result, he breaks an implicit, necessary trust with both his actor and his audience.

Joker, suffice it to say, is one of the more bizarre studio releases of recent memory. The executives at Warner Bros. sure have guts, but there’s little evidence here of them having brains or souls.

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