As the credits rolled Monday evening, my wife turned to me with a grimace on her face.
“Well, that was…uplifting.”
We had just sat through one of the most anticipated movies of the season, and as people shuffled out of the theatre, I took a moment to consider what we had just watched: two hours of dour, dark, melodrama.
The film in question, ‘Joker,’ dropped this past weekend, and after the months of hype, media scrutiny, debate, hand wringing and vitriol, the Joaquin Phoenix vehicle scored an impressive debut. Launching with over 90 million in domestic sales, and upwards of 250 million worldwide, the film enjoyed one of the all time great October releases, and– as of this writing– is on par to close out the week with close to 400 million in global haul. Phoenix’s make up clad visage is gracing billboards, and bus stops, across North America, and the movie has been a hot topic of conversation across age brackets, alternately praised for it’s groundbreaking take on the comic genre, and condemned for it’s dangerous portrayal of violence and mental illness.
The noise around the film began to really heat up this past September, when director Todd Phillips brought the movie to the Venice Film Festival, where it was screened as part of the competition among other, more ‘prestigious’ films. The idea that a comic book movie, directed by a guy who had spent the bulk of his career making sophomoric comedies about road trips, and fraternity bros, could stand toe to toe with offerings from film makers like Steven Soderbergh, Noah Baumbach, and James Gray, was a long shot. Add to the fact that over the past decade, only two English speaking films have won the Golden Lion Award at the Venice Festival, and the odds were heavily stacked against the Clown Prince of Crime.
But, one towering performance, and a lengthy standing ovation later, Joker had defied the odds. The Internet hype machine began to run amok with predictions of Oscar glory, and the mystique of the film grew steadily, fueled in part by fears of violence and copycat shootings in the wake of the 2012 tragedy in Aurora, Colarado. It also helped that ‘Joker’ is centered around an essential figure in the pop culture lexicon, one immediately recognizable, even to non-comic book fans. Since the inception of the Batman series, the Joker has been an integral part of the Caped Crusader’s mythology. As well, film adaptions of the character have been seared into the cinematic hall of fame– from Jack Nicholson’s gloriously deranged, art loving gangster, draped in purple velvet amidst a pastiche of Prince songs in Tim Burton’s 1989 film, to the dark re-imagining of Heath Ledger, widely praised as one of the all time great movie villains, in 2008’s ‘The Dark Knight,’ to Jared Leto’s…uhm…Hot Topic inspired, Lamborghini driving, grill wearing, monstrosity in 2016’s ‘Suicide Squad–‘ The Joker is a character that great actors gravitate towards, and they always have some serious ‘method acting’ stories to go along with their descent into the mind of a mad man.
After Ledger tragically died in post production, of a suspected drug overdose, the rumors came flying regarding his deteriorated mental state as a result of taking on the iconic role. Indeed, Ledger immersed himself so deeply in the work, that those on set found it difficult to separate actor from character. When it was revealed that Jared Leto had also gone full method in his prep for ‘Suicide Squad,’ sending his co stars gift packages with rats and used condoms inside, it only helped to further the narrative of the Joker as a dangerous character– a role so nihilistic, that those who chose to inhabit it couldn’t help but lose themselves in the character’s depravity.
It’s only fitting, then, that Warner Bros. saw dollar signs at the prospect of a Joker origin story. The leg work had been done decades earlier, and after the mesmerizing performance of Ledger, as well as the unfortunate aftermath, there was a morbid curiosity in the air over who would fill the clown’s shoes next, and what the effect would ultimately be. This side story proves to be more interesting than the end result in the case of the new 2019 film, as Todd Phillips presents us a grim character study, led by Joaquin Phoenix doing some A-Plus acting, in a movie that basically spends two hours saying nothing and going nowhere.
Phoenix’s character Arthur Fleck, is an emaciated loner, living in the squalid inner city of a late 70’s-early 80’s grindhouse New York City…sorry, I mean Gotham City. He spends his time working as a part time clown, and caring for his ailing mother. He harbors dreams of being a stand up comic, and obsesses over a late night television host, played by Robert De Niro. Fleck suffers from a mental condition that causes him to break into fits of deranged laughter when faced with an uncomfortable situation. Phillips spends the first half of his film pretty much doing all he can to make Arthur’s life miserable– the movie starts at a low point, and really doesn’t climb much higher from there.
Here is issue one with the film: it’s not dangerous, incendiary, or groundbreaking. It’s boring. Despite the best efforts of Phoenix to inject Fleck with a sympathetic edge, he is rendered so pitiful, and subject to so much negativity, that the audience can’t possibly root for him as an anti hero. ‘Joker’ borrows liberally from the 1976 Martin Scorcese film ‘Taxi Driver.’ By ‘borrows’ I mean Phillips seems to have watched Taxi Driver on repeat, and then tried to mash a Batman connection into that existing framework. The difference between the titular characters in these two films, is that Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle spent the first half of ‘Taxi Driver’ on a slow burn, and the suspense was in knowing that he was reaching a personal breaking point. Phillips starts Arthur Fleck at the breaking point. The character spends the entire film on one note, and then, in the final third, throws some clown make up on, and becomes a Batman supervillain. The writer/director takes so much time to establish that everything in Gotham sucks, and everyone is terrible, that the film offers nothing in the way of a character arc. Phoenix is angry, then he becomes angrier.
While on the topic of borrowing from other film makers, Phillips seems content to pillage the Scorcese canon further, as the essence of Robert De Niro’s character in ‘Joker’ is largely pulled from the plot of the 1983 film ‘The King of Comedy,‘ in which a socially awkward, failed celebrity wanna-be, who lives with mother, becomes obsessed with a high profile talk show host, eventually degrading into criminal behaviour (see a pattern here?). Ostensibly ‘Joker’ begins to feel like a mash up of films that were already done better in the 80’s, and Phillips is pulling the homage card in order to give his 2019 film a sense of gravitas. The end result is a climax that is telegraphed from a mile away, so obvious by the half way point of the movie, that when the credits eventually roll, over a bizarre soundtrack, the ending is completely anti climactic, and largely ineffective.
Is it all bad? Of course not. Phoenix is brilliant in his portrayal of Fleck, despite being given a bare minimum to work with. He dominates the screen, and steals every scene he is in; it’s unfortunate that ‘Joker’ seems content to limit him to a pair of emotions: extreme sadness, and extreme anger.
The production values are fantastic, and the movie looks great– taking place on the grimy streets of a Gotham ripped straight out of the darkest days of modern America. Garbage is piled high in the streets, and crime runs rampant.
In the end, the positives aren’t enough to outweigh the negatives. The connection to Batman, and the greater DC universe, is tenuous at best. Phillips has grand ambitions to comment on social issues, mental illness, media culture, and celebrity worship, but bogs his film down with so much despair that the message ultimately gets lost.
All of this to say, this review is not a criticism or indictment on you, the viewer– if you liked the movie, great. If you didn’t, that’s cool, too.
For me, the biggest let down for a film that promised to deliver an edgy, new take on the comic book genre, while providing a subversive commentary on our doom obsessed culture, is that I left feeling nothing at all.
After spending 55 dollars for a pair of VIP tickets, I guess that means the joke is on me.