Sometimes I walk out of movie theater going ‘wow!’ Other times, I manage a ‘meh.’ Then there are those special times when I ask myself, my date, or whoever ever is listening, ‘WTF was that??!!’ Joker qualifies for that third reaction. This violent, meandering, and ultimately aimless two hour clown show wants desperately to be smart, but might only appeal to indie film snobs, some DC movie fans desperate for a hit, and yes, the community of tortured souls whose batting average with women is so horrible they’ve lashed on in a series of real life mass shootings. Think I’m kidding? This darling of the Venice Film Festival is the only film to my knowledge to have received special attention from the American military and FBI for it’s potential to inspire real-life violence.
Of course, the controversial elements of the story and it’s seemingly asperational message to some who might be prone to violently lash out at society hasn’t gone unnoticed by anyone accept, perhaps, Warner Brothers, who green-lighted this dumpster fire, and star Joaquin Phoenix, who walked out of an interview when asked if he shared the concern from some that Joker “might perversely end up inspiring exactly the kind of people it’s about, with potentially tragic results.” Director Todd Phillips should have known better, but his solution to the negativity has been to strike back at gun death-weary ‘woke culture’ and the far-left. This, of course, has made him the champion du jour of the alt-right and has potentially given aggrieved would-be shooters another ‘reason’ to act. At the end of the day, Joker is literally about a serial killer inspiring people across the country to commit murders. That’s not really the problem. The problem is no one associated with this film, until very late in the game, has acknowledged this is a serious real-world issue. Alternately, do producers of our entertainment have a responsibility to the public to at least issue warnings and disclaimers about content? That’s a question worthy of some debate.
Perhaps bowing to pressure, though, Warners finally issued a statement on Facebook this week that stated, “Parental warning (this is not a joke). Joker is rated R, and for good reason. There’s lots of very, very rough language, brutal violence, and overall bad vibes. It’s a gritty, dark, and realistic Taxi Driver-esque depiction of one man’s descent into madness. It’s not for kids, and they won’t like it, anyway. (There’s no Batman.)”
That’s a weak admission from the studio. Bad vibes? Perhaps they should have elaborated on that a little. Maybe they could have wrote “there are some very disturbed people who might look at this character as a hero and be inspired by his actions.” It’s also an admission that they’re pinning their hopes for Joker’s success on those who will either associate it with Batman or Taxi Driver. Do they not believe it can stand on it’s own merits? In this writer’s opinion, all Warners would have had to do to make Joker an important part of American cinema is state openly that Joker is social commentary on a very real problem facing society. Oh, and not portray the character as inspiring.
I’ve never been one who believes that life imitates art. I believe the opposite. I don’t believe most people will will leave this film believing the actions of it’s protagonist was justified in any way. No reasonably adjusted person is going to grab a weapon and start killing because they believe the Joker would approve. But the possibility is real enough for federal law enforcement to take notice.
Joker is a re-imagining of the character in a film that takes Zach Snyder‘s vision of grown-up superhero movies to the extreme. It paints a grimmer portrait of a pre-Dark Knight Gotham City than we’ve ever seen. Star Joaquin Phoenix would have been an amazing choice as Joker for the next Batman series, easily distinguishing himself from Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger. However, making Phoenix’s take on the character the lead in his own movie only proves Ledger’s words to Batman in Dark Knight. “You complete me,” he said. And, despite an inspired performance from Phoenix, the film comes off as unbalanced without Joker’s caped antagonist. And Director Phillips lacks to the directing chops to pull it all together. As many have pointed it, he essentially rehashed Taxi Driver and slapped the Joker label on it.
Make no mistake, Phoenix fully committed to his role as the loner Arther Fleck and carries the movie. You can’t take your eyes off this performance. Arthur suffers from a mental illness that forces him to burst into fits of laughter in any given stressful situation (how convenient for the Joker!) His mental state is exacerbated by his responsibility to his ailing mother and he copes with it all with medication, therapy, and a job as a street clown. When a violent assault leaves him battered and bruised, he begins a calculated series of paybacks against society for perceived injustices against him. If that sounds familiar, it’s because some believe school shooters are reacting to being bullied or shunned by other kids. The parallels to society here are striking, and that point gets driven home by Joker’s first victims, three jock-type bullies. It’s an incel’s dream. Ditto for the character’s imagined love affair with a woman that lives in her building.
Despite Phoenix’s performance, and if you can justify the film as a character-type study or societal commentary (or don’t really care about the issue’s raised,) there is no joy or even anything particularly interesting here besides the lead. The film is just boring. And that isn’t funny.
In this joyless and, frankly, boring take on the character, a golden opportunity to make a statement on one of society’s most polarizing issues was missed.