Few films this year have gotten as much pre-release buzz as Joker. After all that speculation, we can finally see the already-laureled movie and it’s mostly fine.
The DC Comics villain’s latest iteration comes to screen from the director who also brought us Old School, Road Trip, and all three parts of The Hangover saga. While this is not Todd Phillip’s first foray into the darker side of cinema, this time he teamed up with Joaquin Phoenix to bring the infamous clown to life.
While Phoenix’s performance veers into cartoonish and unbelievable at times, it’s spot-on for a comic book adaptation which occasionally bares its roots. He laughs maniacally. He imagines himself suave. He walks with all the grace of an ogre. The physicality and emotional rigor of the part of this evil man are easily met by a seasoned professional such as Phoenix.
The plot of Joker offers nothing new, by design. It’s the straightforward origin tale of one of the better known bad guys. Arthur Fleck is a mentally unstable man who has been failed on many fronts. The government fails him by cutting off his medication and only offering him an unfeeling clinical counselor. His mother (Frances Conroy) fails him by being unable to provide a happy childhood and stable home. His job fails him by letting him go. All of these failures lead to Arthur feeling like a victim of the system. When push finally comes to shove, he snaps and takes his angry vengeance out on what he sees as the biggest symbol of his failure as a man and the father he never had. Or, at least that’s one interpretation of Joker.
Another way to see all this is as the actions of a mentally unstable man who’s being held accountable for his actions. He was rightly fired for being dangerous around children. He refuses to comply with his therapist’s simple requests. He could have been the one to create a home for his infirmed mother. He has no stand on politics or the state of Gotham (which is doing a flawless 1970s New York City impression). He’s just another crazy person lashing out at the easiest target in his scope.
If you can believe it, Joker leans into both possible interpretations in different ways. All of the text within the script points toward Arthur being an apolitical madman who just wants to watch the world burn. He seemingly has no aspirations of grandeur or even retribution. But the visual language of the film tells an entirely different tale. Arthur is framed as godlike by an admiring camera. We nearly always see him from a low angle, as if the audience was on its knees at Arthur’s feet whenever he deigns to grace the screen with his majesty. And there’s the massive matter of the dancing.
In what feels like hours of the film’s running time, we see Arthur dancing. Sometimes it’s lovingly with his mother, sometimes it’s a horrific contortion as he finds his greater sense of antisocial self, but in any case this guy is always moving and shaking. The movements are reflective of his growing confidence and correspondingly growing interest in mayhem, and they are omnipresent. The celebratory dance when he finally dyes his hair green is one of the more beautifully filmed scenes in the entire film, as well as one of the most indulgent visually. Joker has come to life.
This middling messaging gives the film an overall underwhelming effect. It’s difficult to root for a guy who makes so many bad choices, even as a burgeoning antihero. And it’s difficult to root against society as a construct when we see no real evidence that there’s anything within that world worth saving. Then again, nothing in that world is presented as especially offensive either. It’s all just kind of fine.
I’m quite happy to report that Joker stops short of being the incel call to arms that it could have potentially become. The film’s treatment of women isn’t great, but that’s all shown as being a negative aspect of Arthur’s behavior, not a reason to celebrate him. Additionally, the movie makes a point to call out the hazards of worshipping false idols, and in turn criticizes fan culture, but that more hidden message might get lost on the people who don’t wish to see it.
Often beautiful, often dancing, and rarely opinionated, Joker‘s bark is far worse than its bite.