Watching an emaciated creeper do several “kooky underpants dances” is definitely somebody’s idea of a good time. It is just not mine. Joker isn’t quite the incel love letter I feared. Instead, it is mostly a cliched bore with a final act that validates dangerous psychopathological misperceptions of reality. Because clearly what we need right now is a film from the director of Due Date that ultimately suggests lunatics who think they’ll be celebrated for murdering people are probably right.
Joker is set in whatever year is Martin Scorsese’s favorite, likely the late 70s or early 80s, whichever had less women. The life of Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is a lazy amalgamation of every real-life serial killer’s origin story. He has a history of head trauma, mental illness, mommy issues, and an obsession with a celebrity, Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), the host of a late night show. As his therapist is taken away and he goes off his meds, Arthur attempts to find out the truth about his parents and finally make people “see him.” Again, it cannot be stressed enough just how much this process involves a skeletal Phoenix, dressed only in his tighty-whities, gyrating while his vertebrae pop up and down like anxious groundhogs.
Press junkets for Joker have focused extensively on Phoenix’s obnoxious method acting, writer/director Todd Phillips’s inability to mature with the culture around him, and how the film’s script was mostly improvised. Having now seen the film, that last point reads more like an apology than a revelation. Without spoiling anything, the conceit upon which the entire third act hinges is that the downtrodden in Gotham choose to celebrate a murder-clown because his victims were rich. Here in the real world, if somebody gets diarrhea once after eating lettuce, nobody has a salad for three months. Yet the premise in Joker is that everyone super loves a dude John Wayne Gacy-ing people because there’s an ongoing garbage strike.
But hey, who cares about the plot, right? Allegedly the reason Joker exists and is already winning awards is because of Phoenix’s “masterful” performance. Although what makes acting good is wholly subjective, where is the masterwork in random twitching, hacking up laughter like hairballs, and mamboing in greasy Fruit of the Looms? Heath Ledger’s portrayal was a departure for both the character and the actor. This Joker is stunningly expected and so completely in line with Phoenix’s body of work. It’s not “bad” so much as simply on par with every cosplay impression of the character we’ve collectively endured for the last decade.
What is unique is the almost nonchalant endorsement of a truly horrifying worldview. Again, without spoiling things, audiences are told rather explicitly that Fleck’s fears are accurate, his inherent beliefs about people are true, and his strategy to gain recognition through violence is an effective one. This is not interpretation. The film’s closing moments literally confirm the validity of the very worst things a troubled person can think. That seems, I don’t know, kinda bad, right?
Making any major film about a violent, awful person is a choice that comes with a massive level of social responsibility and requires significant awareness. Censorship is abhorrent, as cultural progress requires that artists are allowed to work unchecked. That said, there were cops at my theater. If the very existence of your movie makes people afraid that some who are inclined to see it may shoot other people, maybe you’ve made a bad thing?
Grade = F