Published on October 5th, 2019 | by Craig Silliphant0
Joker is an amazing looking film with a stellar performance by Joaquin Phoenix, but it’s not the masterpiece it has been made out to be.
Thanks to increasing production and splintered tastes, we have a lot less common ground when it comes to water cooler movies and TV these days. A show like Fleabag wins a ton of awards and almost everyone says, “What the hell is Fleabag?” Sure, there’s Game of Thrones and the latest Marvel or Star Wars movie, but when a movie that has the hype and controversy of Todd Phillips’ Joker comes around, everyone wants to have an opinion and be part of the conversation, which is great. Dialogue on culture is one of the reasons I fell in love with movies in the first place.
While it doesn’t escape me that this is also a comic book movie, it’s nice to see someone taking this fatiguing genre in new directions. Don’t take that as a diss of comic book movies. I grew up reading comics (I still do) and I love seeing those heroes and villains play out their epic battles on the big screen. Unlike Scorsese, I have no snobbery in this realm; I worship Scorsese, but to suggest that a number of people come together with the dream and gargantuan task of making a film shouldn’t be called “cinema” because its subject isn’t as high-minded as material he likes, is hubris.
But a fanboy, I am not, so I will always call it as I see it based on its merit as a film and what it could accomplish within and beyond the realm of its genre. I went into Joker with high hopes (maybe too influenced by the hype machine? I am pretty good at shutting out the noise, but even I’ll admit that the trailers, early reviews, and Joker winning the Golden Lion at Venice definitely spun me in a certain direction).
After all that unnecessary and indulgent preamble, I’ll just spit it out. While Joker wasn’t terrible, I didn’t find it to be anywhere near great either. But let’s clear the chickens off the runway and break it all down.
Joker is the story of Arthur Fleck, a mentally ill man who is living in the backdrop of a rotting city. The rich wear their tuxedos and have their fancy balls, while everyone else suffers in poverty and violence. Arthur works a crappy job and takes care of his mother, while dreaming of a career in stand-up comedy.
At first, I was enraptured by the look of the film, which is one of the best things about it. It’s all flickering lights and gritty streets, and Fleck oscillates between taking beatings and dancing down dirty hallways in slow motion. (If you take out all the scenes of Fleck dancing in slow motion down hallways, the movie is probably only 20 minutes long). Phoenix himself is also excellent, the other high point of the film. He absolutely shines, adding his performance to a long line of great interpretations of the clown prince of crime (minus Leto).
The movie is also interesting when it presents the rise of a movement, even when that movement happens in the background. Was I supposed to get shades of Trump here? The disenchanted people falling in line behind someone who masquerades as a change to their downtrodden circumstances? (And while we’re at it — were we supposed to take Joker’s ramblings about comedy near the end as a take down of PC culture?).
Unfortunately, the excellence ends there. The film itself feels like a pale version of Taxi Driver or The King of Comedy (not to mention tones of Fight Club that are so on the nose they become insulting to the audience). It follows very predicable beats for the first two acts, not just from the beforementioned movies, but from every anti-bullying After School Special.
I also found a lot of the Batman fan service distracting. They veered closely to losing me completely with the notions of Fleck’s parentage, but thankfully they pulled back on that idea. The movie could have had the strength of its convictions, to focus on Joker without bringing Bruce in. You sold me a Joker movie without Batman. I understood that and bought a ticket, as did the rest of the audience. Let’s see that movie, not a big screen version of Gotham.
Some people may focus on the nihilism and cynicism inherent in the film as a bad thing — not me. Those who know me, know I have a healthy streak of cynicism. But unlike the films it seeks to imitate, Joker has almost no profound insights about these themes. I’m sure fanboys and incels will insist on some deeper meaning here, but beyond a curious portrayal of the journey to criminal madness, there’s not much to cling to outside the beautifully grim aesthetics the movie presents.
I’ll wager that Joker will be a divisive film — I mean, it already is, but I mean the film itself, not the somewhat manufactured controversy around it. I didn’t hate Joker, by any means, but I don’t think it’s the mind-blower that the hype machine is selling. It seems more like a movie that will be loved by people who haven’t seen a lot of movies — which isn’t meant to be an insult to the average filmgoer, so much as a compliment to Phoenix and the look of the film. But to those who see beyond that veneer, it’s a pretty average film. There’s enough there that I will watch it again on home video, but its masterpiece status is all clown’s makeup, covering the blemishes beneath.
“Hey, all the clown rioters are gathering downtown shouting ‘kill the rich!’ But Zorro’s Gay Blade is playing, so put on your best pearls and let’s go downtown!’
– Famous Rich Dirtbag Thomas Wayne