Dir: Todd Phillips
Nominated for: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actor, Best Cinematography, Best Makeup & Hairstyling, Best Costume Design, Best Film Editing, Best Original Score, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing.
Is Joker the worst movie of the year? OK I am sure there are many in reality (most of which I won’t even be aware of) that are far worse, but contrary to popular opinion, Joker is a dog’s dinner of a movie and actually a pretty unforgivable blow for the art of cinema. This past November when Joker was released it was what most considered to be THE buzz movie of 2019. It’s barely worth re-counting the premise of Joker as within cinema going audiences the movie’s marketing saturation set a high water mark for “must see” cinema releases thanks to the release of teasers that tantalisingly promised Phoenix’s dark take on the comic book villain with not so much as a Batmobile or a cape and cowl in sight and the slick marketing campaign that followed made sure no one was unware this was one to watch. Ostensibly the mission statement by director Todd Phillips and Joaquin Phoenix was to smuggle an arthouse movie into the mainstream by simply devising a troubled inner city white outsider story of the MAN Arthur Fleck and label it Joker, thus slipping it into the studio system dominated by largely trashy commercial meaningless super hero movies. Sadly Joker is every bit as hollow as the comic book movies it is attempting to subvert.
The short review of Joker is this is a poor man’s version of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver combined with Scorsese’s The King Of Comedy. The direct references and indeed sometimes downright wholesale rip off of these movies is blindingly obvious to anyone familiar with them, right down to specific scenes and phrases in the dialogue (hell DeNiro even plays a talk show host). It’s a fact that seems to have popped up on the radar of virtually every reviewer worth their salt. This in the end, may be Joker’s fatal flaw. For director Todd Phillips to so brazenly pay homage throughout the entire film to these virtually unparalleled screen classics would be OK, if the movie had one iota of the substance contained within Scorsese’s masterworks or had managed to repurpose the ideas cleverly. Sadly the movie is an empty shell when it comes to ideas. Joker is a movie that, much like Phoenix’s central character opines late in the film, has no punchline. By way of simple comparison consider that, The King Of Comedy has a cameo from The Clash, Joker has a cameo from Imagine Dragons.
Like so many movies Joker starts with promise, but like so many as the ideas (or in this case lack thereof) are fleshed out, the mystique unravels revealing the movies hollow centre, and not in a nihilistic way either. In a non committal, wildly uneven, and rather mealy mouthed way, so much so by the time the wheels came completely off in the exceptionally dumb talk show scene, which beggars belief that it reached the screen in it’s current form, I considered breaking my own cardinal rule of walking out of the cinema (something I never do). The art direction is often satisfying, the visuals often well designed, attractively shot (if not a little over-egged to be faux authentic) and it’s occasionally highly detailed and historically accurate to, oh let’s say new York in 1981, with a relatively unusual score for a movie that is a mainstream success and as such Joker is pitched as a character study disguised as a DC movie. But if it’s a character study shouldn’t the central figure have a character? What do we really learn about Arthur Fleck or indeed the world he inhabits, and what does it tell us and indeed does it even make sense? It is a brilliant performance on many fronts by Phoenix but he is recycling his performance from the truly astonishing The Master (easily the best film in Phoenix’s filmography) and without the presence of anything in the script that actually fleshes out the identity of Fleck we are left with an albeit handsome performance that is the equivalent of the emperor’s new clothes. Contorting your body, dancing to a nice bit of score in a dirty old NY bathroom might seem meaningful but it really isn’t. Somehow Joker is so bereft of actual ideas, subtext and character exploration that its provocative content which would seem to add to the debate of the issues in the film, and inform us about Fleck’s character, is actually a vacuum that dumbs down the discussion and empties out Fleck’s character to the point that it’s just Phoenix flailing around using his best (often brilliant) actor moves to try and create the illusion of depth. Again however, Phoenix’s performance is good, and the least of the film’s problems.
This is after all a film by the director of Road Trip, Old School, Starsky & Hutch and the Hangover Trilogy. Joker is what intelligent cinema looks like if you are a 15 year old boy. The film understands and tells us nothing about why its own city mob rises up to follow Joker in the film’s climatic scenes other than poor people are annoyed at rich people and this will look cool if we shoot it in slo mo. Given that Arthur Fleck is mentally ill, and despite the bullying his character receives at the hands of some cartoonish yuppies (I thought this was meant to be a take on The Joker infused with gritty realism – don’t get me started on Bruce Wayne sliding down a pole) his clearly unjustifiable shooting of his victims on a train reminiscent of the 1984 Bernhard Goetz New York subway shooting is seen to be somehow endorsed by the poor population at large. This generally makes those who are at odds with Gotham’s elite seem evil and complicit in needless murder rather throwing off the shackles of a society that has left them to rot; it just becomes just a race to the bottom. The film actually degrades the moral stance of the underprivileged, and unknowingly views things morally from the perspective of the rich, turning Joker into a horror film for those who exist in the top tax bracket of society or indeed the upper middle class. ‘What if some lone wolf shooter madman starts shooting businessmen on a train and everyone likes it?’ must be the nightmarish thrill that captivates a few millionaires sat watching in their mansion screening room. This aside from the fact the Goetz train incident was a white lone wolf shooter who tried to kill four black men on the subway in an act of supposed vigilantism against black street criminals. Joker twists this narrative to make Joker the white saviour for the impoverished minority communities of the city, by being a crazy white man, who is clearly an avatar for the disillusioned incel white “lone wolf” shooters, who suffering a loss of his male identity, kills white rich men to make the underclasses rise up. What’s worse is, it isn’t Joker’s intention to lead this uprising, the masses make their own decision to see this disturbed serial killer as their hero. What does this say about the filmmaker’s feelings about those in Gotham who are below the bread line? What kind of people are they? Phillips has whitewashed the subway incident as well as decontextualizing another real life incident, when a white person was attacked by a gang of black youths that Joker appropriates for Arthur (the early scene when Arthur is attacked in the alleyway after having his sign stolen). As The New York Times wrote, “Joker is an intensely racialized movie, a drama awash in racial iconography that is so prevalent in the film, so provocative, and so unexamined as to be bewildering. What it seems to be saying is utterly incoherent, beyond the suggestion that Arthur, who is mentally ill, becomes violent after being assaulted by a group of people of color—and he suffers callous behavior from one black woman, and believes that he’s being ignored by another, and reacts with jubilation at the idea of being a glamorous white star amid a supporting cast of cheerful black laborers.” On top of this bizarre right wing perspective of the film, when funding is cut to Arthur’s mental health services, presumably a knock on effect of white men in suits in central government Arthur, who we sympathise with, and indeed the film itself turns it’s scorn on Arthur’s black mental health supervisor. In isolation it might be a comment about her apathy created by being used to this level of neglect in the community, but set against the film’s strangely Trumpian perspective of the world it’s just another blow to the film’s already confused politics.
Aside from insulting those who live below the poverty line and black people generally, Phillips also insults the mentally disturbed with this. Save for a few moments that naturally allow you to consider the difficulties those with mental health issues suffer on a daily basis, the film re-enforces the outdated trope of the violent crazy guy, and simply ignores the fact that people with mental health problems are far more likely to be the victims of violence rather than perpetrators of it. I am aware serial killers have mental health problems too but this movie feels like stereotyping of the highest order given it’s goals of realism as opposed to comic book villainy. The depth of insight around mental illness the film exhibits frankly goes no further than Arthur’s earth shatteringly obvious “joke” for his stand up routine that “The worst part about having a mental illness is that people expect you to behave like you DON’T” as well as people often look at you a bit funny on the bus. The glib approach to mental health is one of many concerns people have expressed about the movie, as well the possibility it will spark copycat shootings from so called incel types and so on. I have no such concerns about this really, artists have to be free to say what they want in their work. Having said that Joker isn’t art. Far from an arty film posing as a mainstream one, its an mainstream film posing as an arty one. Joker is the first R rated movie in history to gross over 1 billion dollars. It’s now the 32nd highest grossing movie of all time and the biggest money earner outside of Disney’s output for the whole of 2019, and has been greenlit for a sequel, the hallmark of all films that are chiefly cash grabbing exercises. This is commercial filmmaking at it’s most insipid, with a very well defined corporate marketing strategy that exploits the in built audience of DC/comic book movies, which is of course a vast well established market right now that studios are looking to find fresh ways to exploit (Joker’s true purpose) but also reaching out to fans of cinema more broadly, including fans of arty pictures by pitching it to both fans of classic cinema and those looking for fresh vibrant new alternative cinema this a marketeer’s dream.
Martin Scorsese recently caused a firestorm by saying Marvel movies are ‘not cinema’, many other notables quite rightly piled in to agree. The crux of Marty’s argument, in part fuelled by his being forced to have masterpiece The Irishman released on the totally unsuitable platform of Netflix (more on that in our Irishman review), is that super hero movies are more akin to amusement park rides than cinema, cinema being something that actually allows us to learn something about ourselves as human beings. As such these type of pictures are simply taking up all the screen time in cinemas leaving even the greatest living director in the world with his film, starring perhaps the two greatest living actors in the world, shunted out of the medium they almost single handedly defined in the modern era (cinematic, theatrical presentations) because studios perceive Scorsese, Pacino and DeNiro to not be as lucrative a bet as something where people whizz around the screen in capes in order to play out another meaningless superhero quest. Thus leaving The Irishman to be picked up by a streaming corporate giant desperate to pay through the nose for credibility (Netflix is currently about $13 billion in debt). But worse still than the overt Avengers nonsense (nonsense as cinema, perfectly fine when viewed as a theme park amusement ride) cinema has to suffer the indignity of Joker, a hollow Scorsese rip off, giving the appearance of being artful when in reality it is a Trojan horse smuggling in more dumb comic book movies, taking up even more screen time from real cinema, but worse still, with viewers imagining that Joker is worthwhile intelligent, arty creative cinema. In this regard Joker is beyond a joke, more deeply unfunny than any of Joker’s violent deeds, its idea-less frame that wants to be all things to all people is just another approach of pandering to the mass market. Far from being this year’s freshest piece of cinema, it’s merely this year’s newest insult to the art form.
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