Joker (2019)

*. I don’t think Todd Phillips really wanted to make a superhero, or supervillain, movie. Apparently he’d turned down offers to do them before this because he wanted to focus on something more character driven. For his part, Joaquin Phoenix had avoided the Marvel honey trap as well because he didn’t want to get stuck in an endless conveyor belt of sequels. So Phillips suggested to Phoenix that they “sneak a real movie in the studio system under the guise of a comic-book film.” As Jordan Hoffman observes, “This does not sound like someone who is particularly enamoured of the genre.”
*. Instead, I think it’s pretty clear that what they both wanted to do was a Martin Scorsese movie. More specifically, they wanted to remake The King of Comedy. Hence the throwback to the 1980s. Before superhero movies were taken seriously. Before Marvel and Disney took over. Before CGI. Hence also the appearance of Robert De Niro as a late night talkshow host. Rupert Pupkin has finally made good.
*. Quite a lot has already been written and said about Joker. Critical opinion was pretty sharply divided. On balance, I think I come down more on the negative side, but I’m not sure how much of that is a reaction to its reception. Because of its (relatively) low budget it was one of the most profitable comic-book movies ever, which puts it among some pretty elite company. It also received a truckload of award nominations, including 11 Academy Award nods. In the face of so many accolades I always have a tendency to draw back a bit. But I’ll try to be fair.
*. The first thing to mention is Joaquin Phoenix’s performance as Arthur Fleck, the troubled fellow who gradually takes on the Joker persona. Physically he’s perfect for the part, with a face that seems like it was drawn for a comic book, having the same kind of natural rubbery quality that worked so well for Jim Carrey in The Mask. He also lost so much weight that his rib cage looks like some kind of body art. Add some long greasy locks and there’s little need for more in the way of costume and make-up.

*. I don’t know if it’s really great acting though. Arthur strikes me as not being a very complicated character to play. He doesn’t grow or develop much. Phoenix is basically just playing a weird guy with mental problems. Let’s face it, for all the sympathy we have for Arthur, he’s a grotesque. Actors like these roles because they let them go all out and create something really distinctive, but isn’t it more of an achievement to play a normal character, naturally? I like Phoenix in this movie, but I can’t say he really blew me away either.
*. For example, one thing he was often praised for was making Arthur sympathetic. But doesn’t the script make it hard not to feel bad for him? He was an abused child, lives in poverty, has a weird medical condition, and spends most of the first part of the movie having the shit beaten out of him by punks and assholes. Of course he’s sympathetic.
*. The second point that has to be raised has to do with the film’s politics. Or lack thereof. This reminded me of the way the politics played out in The Dark Knight Rises, where it seemed as though the forces of Bane were meant to represent Occupy Wall Street, making them into terrorists, or perhaps even worse revolutionaries, that an army of police had to put down.
*. Something similar seems to be going on here, with people donning Joker masks to riot in the streets and carry signs with slogans like “Kill the Rich.” I don’t think we’re supposed to like these people. But then, I don’t think we’re supposed to like the three young ,white, male banker types who Arthur kills in the subway. But wait, that scene was an obvious reference to the infamous 1984 subway shooting, when Bernard Goetz shot four African-Americans. I’m confused.
*. I don’t know if there’s any way to sort this out. Reviewing Joker in the New Yorker, Richard Brody found it “an intensely racialized movie,” but at the same time totally incoherent. I think the incoherence, an assessment I agree with, makes such a mess of the racial message, or indeed any political message the movie might have, that I hold back on that count.
*. Arthur himself, speaking as Joker, is avowedly apolitical. I guess, like Heath Ledger, he’s just supposed to be a Lord of Misrule or Agent of Chaos. Or maybe he’s more like Howard Beale, mad as hell at something and he’s not going to take it anymore. He doesn’t kill Thomas Wayne himself, but inspires his killing. So is he responsible? And is killing Wayne something he would disagree with? When he kills Murray Franklin (De Niro) he tells him he’s only getting what he deserves. It’s payback.
*. Murder then is a form of political protest for cutbacks to mental health services. Which doesn’t seem like much of a political point, and it’s made weaker by setting the story in the 1980s. Something was also made of Arthur as some kind of “incel” or involuntary celibate, which I suppose he is but only the nomenclature is new (and it isn’t used in the movie itself).
*. Another thing that undercuts the politics is the anti-realistic bent the film has. Saying this may surprise some people, since Joker is usually taken to be a realistic comic-book movie. There are no superheroes with special powers, most obviously. But while it’s fair to say it’s realistic given its genre I don’t think it’s realism travels well outside that genre.
*. Yes, it has a gritty, grungy look to it. But that’s just set dressing. The plot is filled with stuff that’s impossible to believe. Arthur just walks into the screening of City Lights to confront Thomas Wayne? Or does he only dream that? And if he’s dreaming, how much of the rest of the movie is he dreaming? Obviously some, but less obviously?
*. Some of what’s hard to believe also comes down to a failure on Phllips’ part. I just couldn’t buy into De Niro as a talkshow host at all, which was weird. Then the way Arthur’s appearance on the show played out didn’t strike me as remotely plausible. As if they would let a guy like that go on live TV.
*. I can’t say I found Joker to be a good movie. The score (written before the film was shot) is overbearing. Phillips has a thing for shooting behind something, or peering over someone’s shoulder, leaving a blurry object or person taking up some spot in the foreground. I find a little of this very irritating and he does it a lot. It’s like he doesn’t know how to frame a shot without it. Which can’t be true, but I can’t think of any other reason for doing it.
*. Perhaps the most disappointing thing about Joker though is that they broke so many rules and taboos but still didn’t come up with an interesting film. To be honest, the most interesting thing about Joker was what was written about it, both pro and con. People see different things in it, which is certainly to its credit. It’s just that I didn’t see very much.

4 thoughts on “Joker (2019)

  1. tensecondsfromnow

    I’m with you on this one; yet to see an argument as to why this is anything more than a palimpest of other movies, loosely assebled around a comic-book hero. The controversy was more interesting than the film itself.

    Reply
    1. Alex Good Post author

      I think what got me the most about the reaction to it was when I started comparing it in my head to King of Comedy. I don’t think KoC is a perfect movie, but even nearly forty years later it’s so much smarter, fresher, observant, and original than anything going on here. I feel like saying this makes me into a grumpy old man, complaining about how they don’t make them like they used to, but when Joker got so much praise for not really doing anything all that interesting or new it made me feel hopelessly out of touch.

      I agree that the controversy was fun to follow. So I have to give it credit for at least being relevant to some things going on now. It’s a conversation starter. But it’s sort of like the feeling I had watching Gone Girl, which was a big hit for being so contemporary but which I wouldn’t want to see again, while Fatal Attraction and even Play Misty for Me are movies I still find kind of interesting.

      Reply
  2. Tom Moody

    But in your review of King of Comedy you note that it never gives us the expected punch (Rupert Pupkin kills Jerry Langford), while Joker actually delivers, 36 years later.
    I interpreted Joker’s scenes as mostly being Arthur Fleck’s fantasies. With his laughing-out-of-context and card explaining his condition, he’s the ultimate unreliable narrator.
    Only in a fantasy (or an alternate-history New York without copyright laws) could a talk show host air a video of a comedy club performance without getting the “rights.” Arthur kills one man in his own apartment, lets another go, all while under close police scrutiny, and then appears at a TV studio for his big night. In his dreams.
    It’s certainly not a Batman movie, since nothing explains how this delusional bozo could ever become a master criminal, with schemes, sidekicks, and cocky confidence. Arthur is passive (until he finally snaps), and his followers in crime are accidental.
    Theme-wise, I think of Christopher Lasch’s book, The Culture of Narcissism, published four years before The King of Comedy. In the absence of religion we have celebrities and the state (mental health services). Take away the latter and there are only celebs. When they desert you — blammo. I think it’s a good film.

    Reply
    1. Alex Good Post author

      Well, Roger Ebert and Jerry Lewis felt frustrated by the end of King of Comedy. They wanted the cathartic bloodletting at the end. Personally, I thought the restraint and ambiguity we’re left with suits that film better. I don’t think it needed Rupert to go full Hinckley to make its point. Despite being set in the ’80s, Fleck is more our contemporary: more damaged, angrier, and more violent. But also someone that at least I found harder to identify with. Which is perhaps why the movie tries so hard to make him sympathetic. Whereas I felt truly sorry for Rupert.

      I can certainly understand people who like Joker. My own feeling is that forty years after KoC it really has less to say about the cult of celebrity you mention and is more just the diary of a disturbed man. Judged on its own terms, I like Phoenix but didn’t think the movie really knew what it wanted to do with such a character.

      Reply

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