Todd Phillips’ “Joker” is unquestionably the boldest reinvention of “superhero” cinema since “The Dark Knight”; a true original that’s sure to be remembered as one of the most transgressive studio blockbusters of the 21st Century. It’s also a toxic rallying cry for self-pitying incels, and a hyper-familiar origin story so indebted to “Taxi Driver” and “The King of Comedy” that Martin Scorsese probably deserves an executive producer credit. It’s possessed by the kind of provocative spirit that’s seldom found in any sort of mainstream entertainment, but also directed by a glorified edgelord who lacks the discipline or nuance to responsibly handle such hazardous material, and who reliably takes the coward’s way out of the narrative’s most critical moments.
“Joker” is the human-sized and adult-oriented comic book movie that Marvel critics have been clamoring for — there’s no action, no spandex, no obvious visual effects, and the whole thing is so gritty and serious that DCEU fanboys will feel as if they’ve died and seen the Snyder Cut — but it’s also the worst-case scenario for the rest of the film world, as it points towards a grim future in which the inmates have taken over the asylum, and even the most repulsive of mid-budget character studies can be massive hits (and Oscar contenders) so long as they’re at least tangentially related to some popular intellectual property. The next “Lost in Translation” will be about Black Widow and Howard Stark spending a weekend together at a Sokovia hotel; the next “Carol” will be an achingly beautiful period drama about young Valkyrie falling in love with a blonde woman she meets in an Asgardian department store.
“Joker” is a movie about a homicidal narcissist who feels entitled to the world’s attention — a man who’d rather kill for a good laugh than allow the world to treat him like its punchline. It’s also a movie about the dehumanizing effects of a capitalistic system that greases the economic ladder, blurring the line between private wealth and personal worth until life itself loses its absolute value. Phillips, whose cinematic legacy was previously defined by the “Hangover” trilogy and that scene in “Road Trip” where he cast himself as a random creep who sucks on Amy Smart’s toes, has made a film that is somehow all of these things at once: It’s a visionary, twisted, paradigm-shifting tour de force and a bar-lowering mess of moral incoherence. It’s nothing less (and nothing more) than an agent of unbridled chaos.
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And we haven’t even gotten to Joaquin Phoenix yet, whose hypnotic and inimitable performance would feel completely new if it didn’t borrow so much from his past work. If Freddie Quell and Theodore Twombly stepped into the teleportation machine from “The Fly,” Arthur Fleck is who they would mutate into. Living in the margins of an early ’80s Gotham City that was rotting long before the garbage workers started their ongoing strike, the Pagliacci-esque Arthur is first introduced as he stares into a mirror and paints on the makeup that he’s forced to wear for his miserable day job; even in a room full of self-loathing clowns, this guy still feels like a special kind of sad. Emaciated and rippling at the same time, Arthur looks like a werewolf who got interrupted mid-transformation (which might explain his stringy mop of wet black hair).
He’s one of the downtrodden — one of God’s unfortunate creatures. And just to make things worse, he suffers from a Pseudobulbar affect, which results in uncontrollable episodes of hysterical laughter (he carries a laminated card that he hands out to apathetic strangers who look at him askance, a ritual that would make anyone feel sorry for themselves). If Christopher Nolan’s Joker was an inscrutable force of nature, Phillips’ couldn’t be more human — all of his eccentricities are explicitly diagnosed. That literalness has its virtues, but it can also be insufferable; Phillips blurs fantasy and reality in the same way that Scorsese did in “The King of Comedy,” but he insists on doubling back and drawing a clear line between fact and fiction. It’s one of the many ways that “Joker” poses as a movie worthy of serious thought, but lacks the courage to behave like one.
Phoenix, meanwhile, follows his own muse wherever the hell he wants. Once the Joker bleeds through, he becomes mesmerically unpredictable. The essence of Phoenix’s performance — and the most lucid example of why it’s a worthy complement to Heath Ledger’s lip-smacking, carnival-esque take on the character — is that it’s always hard to tell if Arthur is laughing or crying, or which reaction would make the most sense. Who among us can’t relate?
Gotham is overrun with super rats, Trumpian billionaire Thomas Wayne is running for office and claiming that he’s the only one who can help the city’s poor, and Arthur’s mom (Frances Conroy) still insists on calling her son “Happy” because she sees his condition as evidence that he “was put here to spread joy and laughter.” The world is a joke, and it’s on him. But Arthur is so close to turning things around — he just has to realize that his life is actually a comedy (easier said than done in a movie so desperate to be taken seriously that it can’t afford to have a sense of humor).
Maybe he can become a comedian, like his hero Murray Franklin: Robert De Niro, graduating from Rupert Pupkin to Jerry Lewis’s Jerry Langford, plays the late night TV show host as a savage parody of Jay Leno. The extended Batman universe, so fascinated by masks and other layers of unreality, has always been attuned to the way that lonely Americans forge most of their connections through television, and “Joker” is at its best when digging into that particular darkness. But Arthur is too isolated to understand what makes other people laugh. In his journal/joke diary, he scrawls that “the worst part about having a mental illness is that people expect you to behave as though you don’t.” Anyone with a heart can sympathize with that, and anyone with a similar history can probably see themselves reflected in those words. Arthur is established as a poor soul, not a pariah, and Phillips is fooling himself if he thinks the rest of the movie does enough to muddy the water.
On both a personal and a political scale, “Joker” finds that things in this world need to be very, very bad before people can actually be bothered to change them. Trauma is transformative. Arthur doesn’t hit bottom until three drunken finance bros attack him on the subway, and he kills them in self-defense. Well, he kills some of them in self-defense. The next thing he knows, the news is full of breathless reports about an unidentified clown murdering some up-and-coming employees of Wayne Enterprises, and the tension between Gotham’s haves and its have-nots begins to boil over. The city needs to be saved, but Bruce Wayne is still just a child. Someone else will have to step up.
Not that Arthur has any interest in spearheading a cause. Put a microphone in his face and he’ll yowl that he “doesn’t believe in anything.” Yeah, he wants the world to look at itself in the mirror — the way he has to every morning — but really he just wants a hug, and for someone to tell him that he’s really there. While “Joker” often plays like a beat-for-beat remake of “The King of Comedy,” that movie was about a talentless man who was convinced that he was special; this movie, by contrast, is about a talented man who swallows the red pill and becomes convinced that nobody is. That perspective allows Phillips to feign an apolitical stance and speak to the people in our world who are predisposed to think of Arthur as a role model: lonely, creatively impotent white men who are drawn to hateful ideologies because of the angry communities that foment around them.
It’s a confused and self-negating approach to a movie that sees personal revenge as a viable spark for political revolution, and a profoundly dangerous approach to a movie that’s too self-impressed by its own subversiveness to see Arthur as anything but a hero. Lawrence Sher’s gorgeous and grimy cinematography fawns all over Joker, the swooning and weightless close-ups watching Phoenix do his Twyla Tharp-like clown dance like he’s possessed by the holy spirit. But Phillips’ direction abjectly fails to put us inside Arthur’s head — to risk the more nuanced identification that would come from a more subjective camera.
As “Joker” emerges from a turgid second act for an operatic grand finale, the film grows drunk on its own unexpected grace. There are moments of shocking violence, but mostly Philips is swept away by Arthur’s newfound power. There’s a fundamental difference between telling a story like this in the form of a dingy, misanthropic art film like “Taxi Driver” and telling it in the universal language of a superhero movie that’s going to open in multiplexes the world over. In this context, that story can’t help but feel aspirational. And Phillips is the first person to be seduced by its pull — to be helplessly pulled along by an innate desire to see Joker at the height of his power.
“Joker” is a movie about how fucked up people can exist in a fucked up world — a movie that insists to the bitter end that one does not negate the other. Arthur isn’t deranged because Gotham is a garbage town, and Gotham isn’t a garbage town because people like Arthur are deranged. Rich or poor, bad guys are the only ones who think like that. And yet, for decades on end, Batman and the Joker have continued to invent each other because we’re all stuck on an endless seesaw between heroes and villains, order and chaos. As the news anchor puts it: The only answer for super rats is super cats.
But Phillips, stuck between reinventing the superhero movie from the ground up and throwing a cheap disguise on the same dumb origin story we’ve already seen 1,000 times, needs his Joker to be both the light and the dark, the yin and yang, the only sane man in a world gone mad. He needs to have his cake, and to smear it all over his face in a big red smile too. The result is an immaculately crafted piece of mass entertainment that wants to be all things to all people, less a Rorschach test than a cinematic equivalent of Schrödinger’s Cat that leaves us feeling like the movie, and the current state of studio filmmaking itself, might actually be dead and alive at the same time.
By the time “The End” comes in its cute, old-timey font, “Joker” is neither a game-changer nor just “another day in Chuckletown.” It’s both. It’s good enough to be dangerous, and bad enough to demand better. It’s going to turn the world upside down and make us all hysterical in the process. For better or worse, it’s exactly the movie the Joker would want.
“Joker” premiered at the 2019 Venice International Film Festival. Warner Bros. will release “Joker” in theaters on October 4.