Joker Review: When Just Looking the Part Isn’t Good Enough

Pagliacci lives in a society.

In the 2011 film Limitless, Bradley Cooper played a normal schmo who stumbled upon a secret government brain-pill that made him smart. This was not meant to be a dunk on Bradley Cooper, the person, but in summary it certainly sounds that way. Bradley Cooper’s character proceeded to have an adventure spurred on by his newfound mega-mind superpower; such as making a lot of money or having a one night stand with a woman in his building or driving a car fast. The most obvious criticism of the movie Limitless is that it is a stupid person’s idea of what a smart person would do.

[Mild Joker movie spoilers to follow.]

That’s the easiest line-in to explaining the experience of evaluating director Todd Phillips’ film Joker: this is what a stupid film thinks an artsy one looks like.

Joker is the story of a man named Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) who lives with his mother (Frances Conroy), pines for a woman in his apartment building (Zazie Beetz), and dreams of performing standup comedy on the late night show of Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro). Arthur’s day job is through a freelance clown agency. It places men like him and his best friend (Glenn Fleshler) into gigs such as streetside sign spinning or entertaining terminally ill children.

No matter how well intentioned Arthur’s choices, however, the world around him is constantly punishing. This usually manifests via unreasonable violence. His is a story that would push a normal person to the brink, but Arthur already comes from a point of instability. So when the world finally pushes him too far, he responds in kind.

The iconic character at the center of all this is Batman’s archenemy: the Joker. This is not a Batman movie, though. Nor is it a DC superhero movie with ties to any past or future continuities. It is a standalone slice of character study, created with the intention of exploring a realistic vision of a historically cartoonish fiend. It humanizes one of pop culture’s all-time most intriguing villains and invites the audience to side with Chaotic Evil defined.

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The framing presents Arthur as a victim of society, and doubles down by transposing Arthur into situations that inflame many of our own worst impulses. “Our own worst impulses” defines the tenets behind nearly every element of Joker — like lashing out or being cruel for reasons even we can’t quite explain. These choices are meant to hold up a mirror to the audience. “Who here is the real villain?” it prods, but not once does Joker earn the right to do so.

Phillips’ film is, at least, beautiful. Its late 1970s Gotham City is a visual achievement — owing an incredible debt to the entire career of Martin Scorsese. (There is no way De Niro was cast in this movie without it being a direct homage to The King of Comedy.) It’s a love letter to a time and place in cinema… that no one involved at a story level actually understands beyond appearances. Still. That surface level is grimy as hell and fun to look at.

Beyond the production design, there’s a soundtrack composed almost entirely of blistering cello solos. These come courtesy of Hildur Guðnadóttir, best known for her work on such dramas as Chernobyl and Arrival. There is a mise-en-scène that is impossible to downplay. But it exists in service of something that does not meet the challenges. It is a lovely, dirty bow on an empty box.

Joaquin Phoenix is an incredibly advanced choice to play the Joker. He throws everything he has at the role — as he tends to do. It’s difficult to say this isn’t a career highlight performance, if “performance” is just a numerical measure of raw energy thrown behind anything. But the acting is trapped within a story so misguided that it left me feeling bad for everyone who put in the work. It leaves Phoenix stranded in a place that borders on embarrassing.

Joker Movie Review 4

Nothing Left to Say but Nothing

Joker is a film that aims to seriously answer the question “Why so serious?” Which itself just feels like two hours of Phillips lashing out at a world he finds unfairly turned its back on his instantly outdated comedies like The Hangover and, uh… the Starsky and Hutch movie.

There’s no other reason to make a film about a violent incel renegade — yet another white man who is The Real Victim in 2019 — unless the creator just kinda personally identifies with the sentiment. That is unless you have a message that turns the whole thing on its head. Phillips’ film manages to shout in your face that there is some message, buried beneath, but forgets to ever find the words. Instead it deliberately refuses to take a stand, despite borrowing radical and revolutionary imagery about doing just that.

Arthur and his mother, for example, exist together but separately, in different parasocial relationships with the media. They believe themselves in relationships with celebrities who do not know they exist. Arthur criticizes his mother for her support of a Trumpian politician and for reciting familiar Fox News dogma. This hints at the idea that Joker is about how unhealthy relationships with entertainment and news warp our world views. In another place, in another time, this might even be about how characters like the Joker are packaged up and sold to us, to be idolized and obsessed over, with likeable traits assigned to demonstrable monsters.

But Arthur engages in similar behavior almost immediately — just in the other direction. He demands civility, but turns to violence at the drop of a hat. Every opinion presented in Joker is immediately contradicted by an equal and opposite political reaction. Contradiction as a concept isn’t inherently wrong, but contradicting everything falls apart fast. It’s a sentiment that has already been overused, defrocked, and abandoned. Just look at the modern irrelevance of something like South Park.

Joker Movie Review

Another Kind of Origin Story

With that in mind, it is worth noting that one of the oddest choices in the film comes right out of the gate. It is the kind of choice that ties together all of my criticisms and my praises to this point. It is the kind of choice that will be explored long after we’re done talking about the rest of Joker. It’s… a decision, my friends.

Arthur opens the film by laughing. Arthur spends most of the film laughing. This is because Arthur Fleck has a neurological disorder that causes him to laugh uncontrollably. Yes. The Joker has spent his entire life laughing at inappropriate times. That’s why society cannot tolerate him. It’s what spurs him toward his first act of violence. It is the most hackneyed way of creating endless situations where Phoenix does the one thing a cynical producer might think us dull, movie-going masses just want to see the Joker do — a trademark, if you will.

It comes off like endless series of… screen tests? Auditions? Phoenix is acting hard for the sake of acting hard, because a director that had no better ideas, that’s what certain people paid to see. The Joker laughing because he has laughing disease is the Midichlorians of the Batman universe. The Joker laughing, hard and endlessly for no story reason, is exactly the kind of one-dimensional, branded crowd-pleaser that this movie might have tried to vilify. Oh well.

Not all movies need to justify their own existence, but Joker makes it clear how desperately it wants to prove… something. It wants to prove its source material is good for more than popcorn flicks, or to hold a mirror up to the way corporate America sells harmful fantasies, or just be a backdoor modern Scorsese tribute. It has the trappings of all those things. But none of those paths lead to any sort of destination.