“Cleave” is a interesting word in the English language, because it is its own
antonym. It means to come together as well as to pull apart. It’s also an apt
term for the social atmosphere that seems to dominate the world these days. Mass
communication through ever-present cell phones, social media and more means that
people can find others of similar interests and connect with them. But that also
gives way to a lot of bubbles in which the most important topic in that
community doesn’t even register for the vast majority of the population. Ahead
of the release of Todd Phillips’ “Joker,” there was a lot of discussion about a
film that sympathizes (and possibly absolves) a solitary, angry white man
causing violence at a time when that happens to be the profile of so many
mass-shooting perpetrators and hate crimes.
However, it’s probable that this discourse over a possible apologia for
destructive "incels" never made it beyond Film Twitter, as most movie-going
audiences may not be aware that it’s a potential aspect of the narrative.
Ultimately, it turns out that the hand-wringing over making excuses for the lone
wolves preying on society is moot, because while that is certainly part of the
optics, it’s buried under so many other awful elements that it doesn’t even
register as the biggest issue with Phillips’ movie. “Joker” is a soulless
retread that hopes to masquerade in the flesh of a Martin Scorsese/Paul Schrader
film in an attempt to seem edgy or dark but is ultimately defiantly mediocre at
best and an utter sham at worst.
Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is a mentally disturbed man trying to get by in
the chaotic and uncaring Gotham. As tensions mount in the city and social
divides widen, Arthur shambles through life as a poorly paid clown, wannabe
comedian and devoted son to his elderly mother (Frances Conroy) as every day
greets him with a reminder of how insignificant he is. Escaping into fantasies
about appearing on the local late night show hosted by Murray Franklin (Robert
De Niro), being adored by millions and connecting with his neighbor (Zazie Beetz)
offers little respite from the daily debasements. As billionaire Thomas Wayne
(Brett Cullen) runs for mayor amidst these growing hostilities, Arthur begins to
find his purpose in a dark new persona.
Phoenix once again physically transforms himself for his latest role, appearing
dangerously thin and lithe with protruding ribs and shoulder blades. He
incorporates Arthur’s neurological disorder of uncontrollable laughter (known as
pseudo bulbar affect) to convey a sense of a tortured man trapped within the
confines not just of an uncaring reality but a body and brain that seeks to
betray him. His moments of reverie aren’t joyful affairs but instead mournful
breaks from reality where he can get lost in his fantasies before yet another
rude awakening. De Niro appears mostly engaged for his performance – which
hasn’t always been the case in his recent comedy roles – and carries a sense of
authenticity and weight as he beams into Arthur’s apartment every night through
the television. Cinematographer Lawrence Sher delivers some excellent shots that
are a mixture of foreboding and enchanting – the whimsical nature of a clown as
he teeters on the edge of sanity along with the city around him.
That’s it as far as the positives go. There are other actors who deliver good
performances, but ultimately, the entire cast is let down by an awful script
from Phillips and Scott Silver, including Phoenix himself. Arthur is basically
“movie crazy,” which is to say that he is sporadically unhinged in ways that
depend on easily explained origins but manifest differently all the time for
plot convenience without being specified. He’s on a lot of “medications,” but
who knows what those are or what they are meant to do except help him be less
crazy. There’s some lip service paid to trauma, mental illness, abuse and the
societal failings of taking care of the vulnerable, but there’s no depth to any
There’s nothing new, insightful or poignant about what Phillips has done here.
He’s taken “Taxi Driver” and “The King of Comedy,” added sprinkles of “The
Machinist” and called it a day. The filmmaker wants to evoke a grimy 1970s New
York, but with the exception of a couple of poorly staged protests/riots, there
is no sense of unrest or corruption. All of the stress the city is under is told
through expository radio and TV broadcasts, which means that it doesn’t feel
like a city about to hit the boiling point no matter how often characters insist
otherwise. Additionally, the period details are all over the place, with
anachronistic technology and clashing imagery that once again speaks to a lack
of specificity of time and setting.
It’s fine for a film adaptation to deviate from details of the source material
as long as it either captures the spirit of the story or is somehow rewarding.
The only way that Phillips can feign justification that Arthur is right in his
rage is to warp the established DC Comics canon of Gotham and the Waynes so that
everyone is an awful person and abuses the protagonist at every turn. Even then,
Phillips never settles on a stance about Arthur’s metamorphosis – not in a
provocative way that leaves audiences debating, but in a “trying to have it both
ways” approach where Arthur is both a regular person with no agenda as well as
an anarchist and true victim. In more talented hands, this would be a compelling
way to show the various shades of one character, but in “Joker,” it is a
cowardly avoidance of anything substantive.
In the 1988 graphic novel “Batman: The Killing Joke” by Alan Moore and Brian
Bolland, the artists put forth a possible origin for the Clown Prince of Crime.
The running theme of the story is that everyone is one bad day away from
becoming a grinning psychopath; with the right push, anyone can become undone
and unleash their rage on the world. Of course, that whole point is meant to be
juxtaposed with Bruce Wayne and Jim Gordon, two men who suffer horrible days
(the death of Wayne’s parents and Gordon’s torture at the hands of the Joker)
but push back against turning into what they hate. Sympathizing with the devil
is a long tradition in the arts, from “Paradise Lost” to “Bedazzled,” but it
requires a keen sense of perspective, a deft hand at contrasting the abuses
suffered with the atrocities committed and some sense of originality. Todd
Phillips’ “Joker” lacks all of those, and instead, is a poorly assembled slog
cribbed mostly from the works of much better artists, revealing a hollow echo of
a film without any semblance of soul or originality.