Director/ Co-writer: Todd Phillips/ Writer: Scott Silver/ Starring: Robert De Niro, Joaquin Phoenix / Producer: Bradley Cooper/ Cinematography: Lawrence Sher
Joker is Taxi Driver meets The King of Comedy set in the Batman universe. It is less violent, more expensive, modern and thus perhaps phoney, and equally intermittently dull. This is not a funfilm. It has narcissistic arthouse pretensions, but outside a few inspired moments; dark unexpected pratfalls (a Todd Phillips signature) and an inspired song queued to a triumphant dance, the film doesn’t push boundaries beyond the commercial and despite its source material remains comic-less. Why so serious? Any deviation from the Martin Scorsese (Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The King of Comedy) 70’s era New York City blueprint would be too risky and new. It also would likely break down. Not since The Force Awakens has a higher profile film so thoroughly stripped an old one for used parts. The film lifts the Travis Bickle character; a mentally unstable recluse desperate to connect with a world he growingly distains, and the political assasination plot line of Taxi Driver mixed with a little King of Comedy and slaps a “Batman” label on it.
The film’s shrewdest narrative move is involving Batman’s father Thomas Wayne as he runs for Mayor of Gotham city. Previously never on screen for more than a few minutes Brett Cullen (who played a Cat-calling Congressman in The Dark Knight Rises) gives a fresh modern interpretation. Cullen’s relative anonymity (he replaced Alec Baldwin a week into shooting) coupled with the audience’s previous good guy association with Thomas Wayne (Batman’s father) is a great trick to play on the audience. At a time when rich white men are under intense media scrutiny Wayne manages to elicit both empathy and contempt during a bathroom set confrontation (Where great movie scenes often occur). His inclusion and the ideas surrounding him represent the perfect perversion of the Batman mythos the film was meant to be. Still, his plot runs second to the film’s inefficient stand up plotline that is comparatively inefficient and in one instance a poor far fetched parallel to the modern world. There was never a chance for Joker to be anything but an elixir of today’s chaos anyway.
The bulk of the movie is carried on Joaquin Phoenix’s sharp scrawny shoulders. As ‘Joker’ he plays a different tune than his Oscar winning predecessor, yet despite greater screen time, Arthur Fleck as this incarnation is called manages to feel less like a complete character (Christopher Nolan and Heath Ledger remain an unbeatable combo). He offers the right vehicle for whatever ideas the filmmakers want to splash on, but the script serves him short. His cold cackling readings belie a hollow interior. After the first bit, you know where the film is supposed to land but it is hard to take shape despite Phoenix’s willing contortions. Phoenix for the record already did more with less in the very similar You Were Never Really Here. His Joker comes off more as an anonymous low-life than a soon to be Clown Prince of crime so it makes the impressive last act require a small leap on the audience’s part. Like a killer opener with a strong set. A tighter punchier delivery would’ve gone a long way.
There are moments where a true Batman fan might be tempted to think Jack Ryder might show up on the Murray Franklin show, or a trip to Arkham Hospital might warrant a run in with Aaron Cash or Amanda Waller. What about Commissioner Loeb or Detective Bullock as the two cops on the trail of the subway killer? All of these unshowy elements would easily fit into Joker’s plot, but it waives any attempt to flesh out a more interesting pre-Batman world if it means putting in more homework than watching 1989’s Batman. This is labelled as a Joker film to sell tickets. And the director has said as much.
Robert De Niro has a small role as a Late Night Talk Show host (his second official stint following Casino). Even if it seems like phoned in DeNiro which makes sense for the character, he gets his moment to shine, whether it involves spoiling the film on real life Late Night TV or existing in a universe where he is funny enough to host with Marc Maron as the assistant. His entire career and recent politically outspoken nature provides enough subtext to carry the pulp-thin plot.
Director Todd Phillips has a fascinating look and feel for his restyling of Gotham city. It is presented as a New York that feels both populous & remote thanks to wonderful photography by Lawrence Sher (the best I’ve seen this year) and Mark Friedberg’s Set Design. Hildur Guonadottir’s score feels like de-powering carnival complemented by occasional energetic bursts of sound design and licensed music. If only the writing were as confident and creative, or the direction aspiring beyond imitation. A fantastic early scene blatant yet effectively brings us inside the protagonist’s head as great cinema often does. But Phillips’ bullhorn style doesn’t trust the audience to hear the whispers of insanity. He later flashes back again to score the same point. Joker’s worst tendency, beyond being a blatant ripoff of is to highlight, underline and bold established plot points. This includes copied lines and multiple close ups of the same object. It’s the kind of movie meant for pseudo-intellectuals to explain to you at parties. But there’s nothing intellectual about copying and plagiarizing other films, but in the age of Disney it is highly profitable. The joke is on the audience.
The difference between Taxi Driver and Joker is how the protagonist’s violent actions are spread. Travis Bickle’s descent results in violence that catapults him into a media sensation. In Joker, he already gets there before his violent message is even spread and worse the audience knows it. It’s the Jack Nicholson problem of being crazy before the opening credits roll only it fails to teach us anything about the character. In this way Joker is representative of a lazier and more entitled world. If the time and the talent involved are any indication, this might be the last gasp of culture centred around white men and it is impossible not to get sucked in.
Internet trolls love this film because it’s about themselves. Overconfident and unoriginal all the reviews good and bad say the same thing turned upside down. Fleck fails because as a comedian he refuses to be the butt of the joke, in this way he’s not unlike Bill Maher in the Batman universe. Maybe these trolls never realize their intentions because doing so would destroy them or the thing they want. Arthur would never survive in the world that inspired him, as indicated by Scorsese’s recent comments [insert comments]. Take away either prime influence and there’s little to the film but shallow characterization. The only caution that comes with this is seeing it has the greatest chance of any Batman movie to put you asleep.
- An audience grappling with issues of its own. Peak Superhero boom coupled with the visibility of violent American hysterics.
- Someday someone will take the grounded comic hero concept and spin real arthouse work out of it. But Not today.
- Joaquin Phoenix has played his fair share of Irrational men.