As crazy as it sounds, ‘Joker’ is exactly what it appears to be, to both its success and detriment. This is yet another standout, bugged-out performance by Joaquin Phoenix, but it’s also an exercise in IP manipulation so blatant it ultimately doesn’t work on multiple levels. It’s hard to say what was the intent of filmmaker Todd Phillips (‘The Hangover’, ‘Old School’) and his attempts to get Martin Scorsese to produce his ode to 70s demented character studies like ‘Taxi Driver’, beyond a desire to legitimize what is ultimately a failure in understanding what is core to this timeless villain – namely that he needs Batman.
In all his best incarnations, the Joker is ultimately defined by his relationship to his nemesis. He’s the chaos agent to Batman’s obsession with order. He only exists BECAUSE there is an arguably unhinged vigilante in Gotham City – interestingly enough, the best stories regarding the relationship (Frank Miller’s ‘The Dark Knight Returns’, Alan Moore’s ‘The Killing Joke’, Nicholson in Tim Burton’s 1989 ‘Batman’, Ledger in Christopher Nolan’s ‘The Dark Knight’) are the ones that explore the question of whether the Joker would even exist without the existence of the hero. He’s best left as an enigma, with either an unknown or questionable backstory – most attempts to tell his ‘origin’ fall flat and demystify one of the greatest villains in culture, a running theme in similar works concerning Michael Meyers (Rob Zombie’s ‘Halloween’), Hannibal Lector (‘Hannibal Rising’), and Darth Vader (the Star Wars prequels). Rather than enrich the character, these stories tend to provide some sympathy and plausible explanation for the unthinkable and indefensible.
Phillips and Phoenix are either trolling or catering to some element of the audience for this kind of film with their creation, maybe both, it’s unclear. At the film’s start, Arthur Fleck, a new identity for the Clown Prince of Crime, is a troubled grown man who lives with his mother (Frances Conroy doing the dotty old lady routine). He works as a clown for hire, appearing at children’s hospitals and twirling signs to advertise going out of business sales, but he’s maligned by a sad loneliness, and appears to suffer from a medical condition that renders his social interactions excruciating. As the barely there narrative progresses, Fleck becomes obsessed with various figures (DeNiro’s late night host, Zazie Beetz’s single mom neighbor, both sketches of personalities), is inexplicably and unrealistically targeted by every miscreant in Gotham, investigates his own parentage, and escalates his violent tendencies. The questions lingering over it all is, why, and more importantly, why bother?
Phoenix goes for it in ways that are usually regulated to a side performance, but here he is left to be the central figure of a production that throws so much grit and grime on screen it collapses in on itself. Phillips is obviously attempting to evoke a dark character study feel to this film akin to ‘Taxi Driver’, a film of its time. Its hard to discern if our current fraught era also deserves a similar response. Those 1970s character studies were a response to the turmoil of a changing American landscape, but they didn’t need the guise of a comic book movie to land. There are some truly riveting sequences and indelible imagery in ‘Joker’, but it’s all in service to a misguided interpretation of a character that is best left shrouded in mystery . . .
Directed By: Todd Phillips
Written By: Todd Phillips & Scott Silver
Running Time: 121 min.
* * (out of four stars) -OR- C