“Joker,” directed by Todd Phillips (“The Hangover”) follows an alternative origin story for the infamous DC Comics villain as he transforms from a downtrodden stand-up comedian to his more familiar persona, Gotham’s most vengeful maniac.
The Joker (or Arthur Fleck, as we first meet him) is played by (“Her”) in another Joaquin Phoenix performance. In other words, he takes character acting to its extreme, presenting the villain with a dark electricity, a fierceness that hadn’t previously been captured by other renditions of the Joker. As in any of his roles, Phoenix goes all in here and totally carries the film.
Unfortunately, despite Phoenix’s genuinely impressive dedication to the character, the narrative is dry and unnecessary. The concept of a Joker origin story could be compelling, though his usual role as the ideological counterpart to Batman’s rigid morality is entirely absent. Instead, what Phillips delivers is a hollow, static product of aggressive and threatened fantasies. There is no transition of ideas, no intellectual momentum — only a lonely man beaten by all of society to the point of bloody retaliation against the culprits. And according to Phillips, we are all to blame.
Many of the film’s early scenes that shame, embarrass and bludgeon Arthur plead for empathy from the audience. And admittedly, they work. In particular, Arthur has a condition that causes him to laugh in uncontrollable, random spasms. When these occur in public, he is physically unable to explain himself and is coldly demeaned by those around him. He even has a tiny laminated note explaining this tendency, and seeing the card’s grimy, creased edges is a reminder of how frequently he must have to pull it out on a given day.
Phillips makes overt, breathless attempts at political commentary with regard to Arthur’s lack of agency in Gotham. The healthcare system is weak and unresponsive, a trash strike has left mounds and mounds of garbage bags littered on the streets and the working class is immobile on the economic ladder. The real problems with the movie arise when Phillips uses these political issues to justify the violence that the Joker commits. Of course, this endorsement is not overt, but when we spend such long and intimate stretches with a man like Arthur, the filmmakers clearly want the audience to understand his motivations.
If one examines his anarchic ambitions for what they are — the euphoric dreams of a murderer made a fool by the system one too many times — “Joker” might not even be interesting enough to merit the discourse it has created. Many times during the movie I was reminded of another messianic symbol of masculinity and working class revolution: Tyler Durden from “Fight Club.” The important contrast between Durden and Fleck, though, is the depth to their madness. Where I think Durden intentionally becomes becomes self-parody, as conforming and soulless as the world he hates, Fleck falls into this trap without knowing it.
Many audience members in my theater evidently fell into the gleeful gravity of the Joker too, laughing hysterically at some of his carnage. Phillips even placed a few jokes into Fleck’s killing spree, which were more cringey than anything else.
Recently, the director received backlash for complaining about the difficulty of making comedy amid “woke culture,” and the more I reflect on “Joker,” the more it feels like a self-portrait. Toward the end of the film, a cackling Joker is asked what he thinks is so funny. “You wouldn’t understand,” he replies raspily. Maybe for Phillips (and those in my screening who laughed so frequently) there is something cathartic about watching Arthur Fleck wreak havoc on a society that refuses to understand him, even when his bloodshed is portrayed with such irresponsible glee. But I guess I wouldn’t understand. And I’m OK with that.