WARNING: The following review contains a couple spoilers for “Joker”.
1.5 out of 5 stars.
Some men just want to watch the world burn. And sometimes, that’s all we need to know. But DC and Warner Brothers’ new film “Joker” is a character study of the iconic Batman villain that attempts to describe the characters’ backstory and how he went from Arthur Fleck to Joker. Directed by Todd Phillips of “The Hangover” movies fame, “Joker” is different in tone and style than what we are used to seeing from DC movies, but in substance offers up nothing new and different. It isn’t even what I’d call entertainment- unless your idea of entertainment is being dragged through two hours of ugliness and misery.
The film is set in early 1980s Gotham City and follows Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix). Arthur, who works as a party clown but aspires to do standup comedy, firmly believes that his purpose is to spread joy and laughter. He lives with his sick mother, but doesn’t have any other relationships. In fact, Arthur suffers from depression and mental illness due to past trauma, and frequently bursts into bouts of laughter at inconvenient times. Meanwhile, crime and unemployment are on the rise in Gotham City as a whole, pitting those less fortunate and the city’s wealthy businessmen against each other.
“Joker” can be divided into three distinct acts. The first sets up all this information, allowing the viewer to get a sense of what the city, and what Arthur, are like. The second act begins after Arthur commits a life-altering offense: he kills three businessman on the subway, initially in self-defense, but ultimately executes one attempting to flee. This act sets the wheels of revolution in Gotham into motion, as the impoverished feel empowering by Arthur’s act of violence toward a group of rich jerks. The final act begins when Arthur acknowledges this action, fully committing to the Joker persona.
“Joker” boasts a pretty solid cast. Frances Conroy and Zazie Beetz play the two women in Joker’s life: his mother Penny and his pretty neighbor Sophie, who may be the only truly decent person in the film, although we don’t see enough of her to confirm this. Brett Cullen and Douglas Hodge portray a couple of familiar faces: Thomas Wayne, the father of Bruce who is running for mayor of Gotham, and his butler Alfred. Even Robert De Niro pops up as Murray Franklin, a popular talk show host who Arthur is a fan of, but who ends up being one of the pieces that causes Arthur to fully snap. But this is Phoenix’s movie, and if there is one good thing to be said about “Joker”—and it really probably is just this one thing, besides the tense score by Hildur Guðnadóttir—it’s that he turns in an incredible performance that will not only go down as one of the best in his already much lauded career, but also redefines the Joker character. He succeeds at making Arthur never come off as likeable or sympathetic (the screenplay and direction leads the character in that direction, however; we’ll talk about that later), depicting his struggles without ever coming off as too over-the-top. There is an incredible moment toward the very end of the film when we see him make that final leap from Arthur Fleck to the flamboyant and deranged Joker we all know, and he does it in an instant. He’s chilling, particularly as the film drags its way toward its conclusion, and for all the amazing and varied portrayals of the character that have graced the screen in the past, his is the scariest.
But despite this impressive performance, “Joker” is not a good movie. Phillips’ direction, along with the script he co-wrote with Scott Silver, results in a movie that is uninteresting, slow, predictable, miserable, and toxic. The first act of the film does present some interesting ideas, as it holds a mirror up to our current society. America loves its guns and couldn’t care less about the mental well-being of its citizens. The only reason why Arthur, who even says out loud that he can’t possess a gun, has a gun to kill those men on the subway with in the first place is because a careless coworker gives it to him. He regularly attends therapy sessions with a social worker, but in his one truly sane moment, Arthur realizes that she doesn’t actually listen to what he has to say—and when the government cuts their funding and he can’t even go to those meetings anymore, that’s that.
But it’s how the film treats Arthur and his actions later on that is the most disturbing. A conversation with Murray Franklin is the closest the movie comes to condemning Arthur’s actions. Otherwise, he is put on a pedestal as, maybe not exactly a heroic figure, but something close to that. It doesn’t help that the other characters Arthur comes in contact with throughout the movie, from his mother to Thomas Wayne, who is typically portrayed as more benevolent, are also terrible. It’s a film filled with ugly people committing ugly acts, with our titular star rising in infamy above the rest. The final shot of Joker basking with his new followers feels celebratory, as if he is finally where he belongs and who he is supposed to be, while the film’s few attempts at being light-hearted are offensive. What are we supposed to think when we see Joker, in full makeup and costume, dancing down the stairs to an upbeat song? That this is our villain, a character we should hate, instead of a cool and confident individual?
There is a twist late in the film that prompts the viewer to question much of what has come before, as we realize just how much of the last two hours we have spent living in Joker’s messed up mind. But I feel confident that the majority of the movie can be taken at face value. As different as it is in style and tone from other comic book movies, it derives a lot from material that has come before, to the point where not only does the plot trajectory become predictable and even a bit silly (a couple of subway murders by an anonymous clown sparking a city-wide movement? Sure) after not a lot of time, but it succumbs to the same tropes we’ve seen in Batman films before. Not to mention, it creates a lot of unnecessary history between the Joker and his future nemesis, Batman.
I can’t imagine that “Joker” was made with the intention to entertain, because there is nothing entertaining or enjoyable about watching it. Joker’s genesis is different from that of most other Batman villains, in that there is no one event that sparked his transition. He wasn’t fine, and then suddenly not. Rather, it is a culmination of terrible things that happen to an already disturbed individual. On the one hand, Arthur’s journey in “Joker” can be seen as a cautionary tale as far as what could happen if we don’t start helping each other. America has been plagued by enough mass shooting committed by disturbed white men as it is. On the other hand, this character that has already had a history of inciting violence could be seen as an example by those who relate to the character’s state at the start of the film. Either way, there’s not a lot to Joker’s backstory to justify this divisive, potentially dangerous, and not very good film’s existence. In 2008’s “The Dark Knight,” when Heath Ledger’s Joker pops on screen to terrorize Gotham and match wits with Batman, Alfred states, regarding Joker’s motivations, that “some men just want to watch the world burn.” We know that the Joker does what he does because he is a little crazy, and he relishes chaos. And that’s all the backstory we need.
Runtime: 122 minutes. Rated R.