On paper, this plays like a promising idea. I am reminded of Zack Snyder’s “Watchmen,” about once-celebrated superheroes reduced to playing the roles of morose observers as their society is consumed by internal political strife. In that picture, the cynicism was an instrument to propel them towards something; they were compelled to save a decaying humanity from a social norm that blinded them to more destructive threats. As grounded protagonists, they stood for a cause. In some respects, so does the Joker – he means to dismantle the system, all the while exploiting the insecurities of those who otherwise claim to be upstanding figures. Yet as I watched Phillips’s film and pierced the disturbing exterior, I found only misery staring back at me: the sort of agonizing howl that stirs nothing more than discomfort. If it is true, as the exhausting promotional campaign has suggested, that the tortured soul of Arthur Fleck is an allegorical sponge for the same sort of cultural alienation that creates mass shooters and serial killers, the movie cuts out away from the ideology too often to establish a cogent argument.
The would-be criminal clown is played this time by Joaquin Phoenix, in a performance of focus and conviction that belongs to a more thoughtful movie. He begins the film by establishing all the obligatory quirks: chain-smoking, awkward social skills, daydreams, morbid humor, destructive thoughts and silent resentment. Oh, and that ominous, medium-pitched cackle, apparently the result of a mental disability; during a scene on a bus where he is accosted for teasing the child of a woman, he hands her a card explaining said disorder while nervously laughing to himself. This is a framing device for what must come later, but it’s fairly repetitious early on too – in counselling sessions where he is asked all the perfunctory questions about depression, in home life during nightly television rituals with his ill mother, at local comedy clubs where he studies the routine of stand-up amateurs (he aspires for this career, we soon discover), and even during exchanges with coworkers in the locker room, all of whom look upon him like a jarring nuisance. All these encounters become the prominent focus in a movie that stacks all odds against him, gradually leading him away from composure and into the embrace of a deep internal anarchy. His virtue, I guess, is that he is caught in the middle of political chaos in Gotham City, where most of the citizens would be all too eager to watch someone act out their anger with violence.
The catalyst comes early on, when Arthur, still in his work makeup, randomly begins his staple laughter on a subway train while three well-dressed 20-somethings accost him. They taunt, tease, and eventually gang up on him in a very brutal attack. Gunshots ring out, and they fall in piles of splattered blood; Arthur has pulled a pistol out from his jacket during the beating and silenced them. They are, of course, symbols of the same system that has kept him in the margins of poverty and alienation, and soon the media is swamped with inquiries: was this an attack on the city’s wealthy by a disgruntled Gotham citizen? Or just an isolated crime? A coup swells within the fringes, filled with dissenters, invariably setting the stage for the Joker’s emergence as the figurehead of a movement that some say resembles the same uprising that came with the Trump election. Many will debate this possibility heatedly, but I’m more alarmed by the irrationality of the situation: in what tangible society would three Wall Street insiders wander onto a subway train to harass a potentially dangerous vagrant late at night when they probably could just call a limousine instead?
The whole movie is wrought with these impossibilities. Consider another scene towards the end, after Arthur is invited onto a talk show hosted by a popular television personality (Robert DeNiro) after he airs a clip of his own failed standup a few days prior. Arthur carries the same pistol into the dressing room that he used on the subway, but there are apparently no security checks to in the studio to ensure the safety of others. Given Gotham’s reputation as a world riddled in relentless crime, this defies basic principle; so, for that matter, does a scene involving a long public diatribe in which he confesses to the crimes in front of television cameras, and the confession is allowed to play for several minutes without legal authorities assembling nearby to make an arrest. Two hours into what amounts to a plausible study point for the incompetence of law enforcement, and you begin to wonder just how far this idea could go if the running time had been more generous.
Am I being too harsh on a movie that otherwise is about psychotic breaks and mental fractures? Perhaps. But any movie that wants to be taken this seriously, even this literally, ought to begin by establishing a logical realism. Unfortunately, Phillips seems more enamored at evoking all the staples of the Martin Scorsese playbook; his film takes most of its narrative structure from “Taxi Driver” and “The King of Comedy,” although not so much for the purpose of homage. He may have been emboldened, I’m guessing, by Scorsese’s own reported backing. One wonders why he didn’t interject any stylistic advice, too; the movie plays through all the familiar notes of a hardened rebel without supplying him much of a framework other the sort of dismal clichés you see in made-for-television movies. Lesser directors would have been troubled by attaching their name to something that feels this mechanical, this empty; by aligning with this final result, the master behind “Goodfellas” and “Raging Bull” contradicts the argument that students might learn something valuable from a direct connection to their teachers.
The trouble may be the motive. Phillips wasn’t so much interested in adding new insight to the Joker persona as he was enthralled by the idea of sympathizing with a controversial personality type. That works only when you are willing to take your argument all the way; “Joker,” unfortunately, abandons its case study in the thick of an indistinct fog of story contradictions, then attempts to gloss it over with an overabundance of downtrodden mood insights. By the time Arthur makes an impassioned plea with prospective politician Thomas Wayne in a bathroom – and without any security watching him, I may add – I ceased caring much about what might transpire and became more focused on the slow tick towards finally reaching the end of an ordeal. There is a scene in the latter half that struck me as especially miscalculated: characters briefly walk past a movie theater, and the camera catches a glimpse of a marquee advertising Brian De Palma’s “Blow Out.” A suggestion to sensible filmmakers: if you are name-dropping a picture that others would rather watch then the one you are currently directing, it’s time to reassess your career goals.
Written by DAVID KEYES
Crime/Drama/Thriller (US); 2019; Rated R; Running Time: 122 Minutes
Joaquin Phoenix: Arthur Fleck
Robert De Niro: Murray Franklin
Zazie Beetz: Sophie Dumond
Frances Conroy: Penny Fleck
Brett Cullen: Thomas Wayne
Produced by Richard Baratta, Bruce Berman, Jason Cloth, Bradley Cooper, Joseph Garner, Aaron L. Gilbert, Walter Hamada, Todd Phillips, Emma Tillinger Koskoff, Michael E. Uslan and David Webb; Directed by Todd Phillips; Written by Todd Phillips and Scott Silver; based on the character created by Bob Kane