Joker is all smoke and mirrors

Joaquin Phoenix is great, but otherwise this origin story is far from the subversive, auteurist film it purports to be.

It would be great to be able to take Joker at face value: to ignore all of the hype coming from all directions, the controversy, the claims that this is a “dangerous” film, the fact that it won the Golden Bear against all hopes, the fact that theatres are promising accrued security in case of terrorist attempts, the claims that the Joker is the first “incel” hero, and so on and such forth. Having now seen Joker twice, I can safely say that many of these concerns are unfounded — Joker is, to me, no more or less dangerous than any movie about an anti-hero ever made. It is, however, impossible to take Joker at face value as it so desperately wants us to, because Todd Phillips himself does not. 

For all the talk of this barely being a superhero movie — of the Joker being a means to an end for a filmmaker who wants to escape the so-called comedy ghetto he can’t even work in anymore because of the woke brownshirt fascist police — Joker certainly winds up giving the people what they want. Under the sheen of dirt and darkness and misery lies, ultimately, a straightforward origin story the likes of which (the exact likes of which) we’ve seen before. Joker is a wolf in wolves’ clothing — just a slightly dingier, more unhinged wolf.

Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) works as a clown-for-hire — children’s parties, going-out-of-business sales and the like. He’s convinced that his purpose in life is to make people laugh, which is ironic considering that he has a (fairly vague) mental disorder that causes him to laugh uproariously at random times, seemingly without provocation. Arthur lives alone with his sickly mother Penny (Frances Conroy) in a dilapidated Gotham apartment building, a lonely living punctuated by nightly viewings of The Murray Franklin Show, a hoary old-timey talk show hosted by a ’50s-style insult comic (played by a never-sleepier Robert de Niro) and the occasional beating by a gang of hoodlums. Arthur’s crushingly depressing but banal life starts to spiral when a coworker (Glenn Fleshler) gives him a gun, his mother gives him upsetting news about who his real father might be and Murray Franklin ends up with a tape of Arthur having a laughing fit on stage at a comedy club — all of which trigger the unspooling of his already fragile mind. 

Joker is about the System and how it lets people who are vulnerable fall through the cracks. We know this much because the movie goes out and says it, and also because that’s what both Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy are about. The first two thirds of Joker are essentially an elaborate Scorsese fan-film that repurposes the loneliness of the protagonist played by Robert de Niro (whose presence here is unquestionably more of an homage to those films than a testament to his comfort and ease on a talk-show stage — i.e. he has none) in both films into a dour, simplistic psychological drama in which Fleck himself remains an unreliable narrator. (There are at least two variations on the whole “you talkin’ to me?” sequence, which is certainly a confident choice.) There is, of course, the confirmation that some of it is in his head — and the intimation that it could well all be in his head — which is a great way to cop out of making any actual narrative decisions with weight… so in that sense, Joker really is a comic-book movie.

Frankly, I don’t believe it’s on Todd Phillips to make a movie that’s morally and ethically “correct” — if he wants to make a movie about how it’s chill as hell to kill rich people if you don’t have any money yourself, that’s on him. But what I do find questionable and ultimately somewhat pathetic about his take on the Joker is that it’s hypocritical and often dishonest in the things it purports to talk about. It’s about mental illness, sure, but it also uses mental illness as a crutch to help it get where it needs to go. It’s about how society as a whole is rotten and corrupt, but it then pointedly sets itself in 1981, which helps the whole Scorsese homage thing but places the social commentary in a bizarre time warp that makes it feel more reactionary than it needs to be. (Surely, it can’t be a coincidence that there’s a Trump-ish figure at the centre of the film, but what’s even the point?)

Ultimately, Phillips gets lost in his cool music cues and his sharp, beautiful cinematography and the oppressive darkness that envelops every frame of the film. I fully believe Phillips when he says he didn’t make a movie that celebrates its protagonist’s crimes and its violence — I fully believe that that’s what he thinks he made. But what he’s ultimately made is a kind of spineless comment on society that plays both sides and can’t resist giving its pathetic protagonist agency because it’s cinematic — it’s a movie of simple ideas playing dress-up in auteurist clothes. There are parts of Joker that I can only describe as “Lars von Trier directs Slipknot in Slipknot and the Phantom of the Park.

It’s certainly impossible to accuse Phoenix of anything other than total and utter commitment. His Arthur Fleck is certainly a notch or two above his usual performances in terms of grotesque overstatement; he contorts and flails and grimaces throughout, his outsized-yet-spindly physicality more reminiscent of German expressionism and silent film stars than anything remotely grounded. Where the film tends to go for roughed-up and grounded in its locations and tone, Phoenix reaches beyond and creates something whole cloth. It’s undeniable that Joker is unimaginable without his performance at the centre — that its bungled Scorsese worship and grimdark flights of fancy are only rendered tolerable by the particularly bizarre and off-putting texture of his performance. Joker the film is sympathetic towards its protagonist, whether it wants to or not; Phoenix, at the very least, keeps things strange.

A lot bothers me about Joker, but what I find perhaps most damning is how thoroughly not subversive it turns out to be. For all of its irreproachable plastic and aesthetic qualities (gorgeous cinematography by Lawrence Sher, a great score by Hildur Guðnadóttir), it’s a pretty down-the-middle movie that says nothing in particular. The first time I saw the film, it got no laughs; the second time I saw it, it got nervous titters in its most violent and outlandish moments. That’s when I realized that the movie wasn’t actually doing or saying anything radical, even if it sort of looked like it did. Joker has the look and feel of a great movie, but all it is is a smoke-and-mirror show. It doesn’t speak to the disenfranchised; it doesn’t speak of our times. It speaks — drones on and on and on and on, in fact — but it says nothing. ■

Joker opens in theatres on Friday, Oct. 4. Watch the trailer here: