The Joker’s Not Wild..

..and I’m not wild about Joker! It’s not the violence. There’s plenty of that. And it’s not Joaquin Phoenix’s performance. He lives up to the hype, maybe to the point of being obsequious.

But from the script to the lack of things for the supporting cast to do, this movie tries to be a lot of things, and sell itself as completely other things, and accomplishes none of them.

Warning: Spoilers Ahead for Joker

Origin of the Species

Joker continues the unfulfilling trend of origin stories of villains. Here, Joker gets the name of Arthur Fleck, a mentally challenged incel, the victim of abuse that was allowed by his mother, on lots of meds, with delusions of grandeur. It begins like its trying to make us sympathetic to his plight. We see him taking care of his elderly, infirm mother. He has a job as a day hire clown where he aspires to win approval by making people happy. He’s been told his entire life that is his purpose on Earth.

And he’s constantly being victimized. By street toughs who steal his spinning sign. By his fellow clowns. By preppies on the subway. The world is against him. It’s all too much. But I can’t tell if it’s done so we have a lot of empathy in reserve for when he inevitably becomes a murderous psychopath or just to give him a backstory. No version of Joker has ever tried to give us this much insight into his past. And this movie may not either.. more on that in a few paragraphs.

Social Studies

There are many, oh so many, questions raised by this movie. Not in the “why is society like this” vein. More in the “what exactly am I supposed to get from this” vein. First: is this supposed to be a commentary on the lack of mental health in America? A man with serious emotional issues is seen struggling to hold it together, with only a low level job and a mother tethering him to reality is falling through the cracks gaping holes in the system.

There are plenty of semi-subtle references to class inequality. Arthur is in pain as he climbs steep steps to get to his apartment. One scene has him staring up at the Carson-esque late show and the host, played by De Niro, looking down on him. The preppies in the subway are elitists. The movie is set in the early eighties and Gotham is in the midst of a garbage strike, meaning the elites are willing to let the proles marinate in their own filth than pay sanitation workers a decent wage.

It seems, as many other critics have pointed out, that this is a social-issues movie posing as a comic book movie in order to lure people in. There is an urban legend that that’s how director Todd Phillips lured Phoenix into taking the role.

Keeping it Real?

The problem is: are we supposed to believe any of this? The director has already told us that Arthur/Joker is an unreliable narrator. Throughout the movie, many parts of this are already revealed to be fantasy. Are we supposed to believe, then, that the rest is real?

Yes, it’s clear a scene where he is called out of the audience and onto the stage is clearly self-aggrandizing fantasy. His ‘relationship’ with his single-mom neighbor seems far fetched and that is eventually shown to be what it is: nothing.

But the ending makes us wonder if any of this actually happened. Arthur/Joker is never shown taking responsibility for his actions. From the subway preppy murder to killing his mother to murdering all who have aggrieved him.

The most telling yet subtle clue is the analog clocks. With the exception of the clock on the set of Murray Franklin’s talk show set, every time we saw an analog clock, the face of the clock was set to 10:10ish. That’s what retailers used to set watches at for the subliminal smiley face (the idea that the positive vibe would induce a purchase). So the director literally put on a happy face, which is one of Arthur/Joker’s mantras. Because the clocks are set to this every time, I believe this is the key clue to telling us that this is mostly fantasy. There is no objectivity from the camera, that this is all Arthur/Joker’s point of view.

And while clever, it feels to me cheap and unsatisfying. As if we could see this same story again ten times from ten different points of view. And, honestly, once is enough.

Good Not Great

Joaquin’s performance carries the movie. It is the spine that keeps the project from collapsing into a gelatinous blob. The supporting characters, from his mom to his ‘girlfriend’ to fellow clowns feel more like props with a pulse than a supporting cast.

And he acts a lot. While he is good (his movement is superb), he’s not great. And quantity is not quality. Remember: neither of Tom Hanks Oscars came from Cast Away where he primarily acted opposite a volleyball.

Plus, the only real moment of levity came after Arthur murdered a duplicitous fellow clown by sticking scissors into his carotid artery. Another clown watches, but because he was always nice to Arthur, he’s allowed to leave. But this clown is a midget, and can’t unchain the door and has to ask his murderous friend for help. Todd Phillips is in his element here, using odd physical deformities for a laugh. He’s been picking low hanging fruit his entire career.

Joker, like all DC movies not featuring ass-kicking Amazonian women, is overhyped.

The Critic’s Cocktail Recommendation

This CCRec is a two parter:

  1. Rent The Dark Knight and enjoy a movie, script, and performance that understands the character and strives to use character and material of the canon
  2. Open a bottle of Bacardi and do a shot every time Heath gives a different reason for his scars (rum always makes me laugh)


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