JOKER (directed by Todd Phillips, 121 minutes, USA, 2019)
BY JONATHAN VALANIA Before we get started, let me just be clear where I’m coming from on all this: I love comic book superhero movies as much as the next 53 year old arrested adolescent. Large men in tights blowing shit up, and there’s popcorn? Sign me up. Like everyone else, I have too much to do and not enough time to get it done, and yet I have burned something like 100 hours watching every installment in the Marvel Infinity Saga over the last decade, and if I had the chance I would do it all over again. I believe that Joaquin Phoenix is one of the greatest actors currently walking the Earth, I think I’m Still Here was next-level fuck-you genius — that in its own way, and with out even trying, out-jokered Joker — and I think his indelible performance in PT Anderson’s The Master was intensity incarnate. So I was completely psyched to see him play the titular Joker, even after early-word festival buzz smoke-signalled that the movie turns the clown prince of chaos into Travis Bickle of the Incels. After having done so, I take no pleasure in telling you that Joker fails on every level.
And so I have come to kill it with fire. Shall we begin?
Joaquin’s Phoenix’s Arthur Peck, aka Joker, is a tormented greasy-haired, Auschwitz-thin sad sack head case slowly descending into madness in the scuzzy ruins of Gotham City, which looks a lot like a slow-rotting Big Apple circa 1981. For the first 90 minutes of this two hour movie, Arthur Fleck is kicked in the teeth at every turn, by the heartless bureaucracy of Gotham City Hall that shits on the poor and gives to the rich, by drunken Wall Street date rapists singing Sondheim in the subway, by the local juvenile delinquents who knock him down and kick him like a deflating soccer ball, by his Ophelia-mad mother who delivered him unto the evil of her sadistic monster of a boyfriend before he was old enough to speak, by his double-crossing co-workers and his asshole boss down at the clowns-for-hire agency he used to work at. All the while struggling to fend off the onset of creeping psychosis. And then the city slashes the budget for mental health services and cuts off his psych meds. Match meets gasoline. He is a man at the end of his rope and vengeance will be thine.
Fine. Have at it.
The film so badly wants to be a gritty edge lord hybrid of Taxi Driver and King Of Comedy, and, just to make sure that’s obvious, casts an utterly unconvincing Robert De Niro as Murray Franklin, a charmless, inexplicably popular talk show host who turns out to be yet another of Arthur’s abusers that winds up one of his victims. De Niro’s not the only one miscast the play. Brett Cullens’ Thomas Wayne (father of Bruce) has all the charisma and indispensability of a Bill DeBlasio presidential campaign and Frances Conroy plays his mother as a muttering unmade bed of a woman.
But the biggest problem with Joker is there’s just too goddamn much Joaquin Phoenix in this movie: Mugging, frugging, preening, pretzeling, all the while cackling maniacally and soft-shoeing psychotic like Chaplin’s Little Tramp on a meth binge. I don’t really blame Joaquin for this, I blame director Todd Phillips and the film editor, who seemingly used every single psychopathic second of every amps-on-eleven take Phoenix committed to celluloid in his iridescent river boat gambler get up. It’s like drinking Joaquin Phoenix out of a firehose.
And it just goes on and on. The movie is only two hours long, but it feels like six. The script is a hot mess of ham-fisted homage, over-acting and muddled intentions. Is this The Rise Of The Incels? An escape hatch from responsibility for the self-made misery of thwarted white male mediocrities? A how-to guide for unfuckable men to cleanse themselves in an orgy of unspeakable violence and be reborn? Or is it the grimy cosplay brutality of overgrown Scorsese fanboys masquerading as a morality play? Or is it a public service announcement reminding us that society reaps the carnage it sows when it arms and then neglects the mentally ill? In which case, why bother when the cable news massacre of the week currently bleeding out at a high school, workplace or WalMart near you has made that point soul-crushingly clear over and over and over again, to little or no avail?
The screenplay, penned by director Phillips and screenwriter Scott Silver, is riddled with logical fallacies and ludicrous improbabilities, from the cops who give Arthur a 50 yard head start before announcing they have come to arrest him, to the scene at the end when, despite having already demonstrated that he is a homicidal maniac with a hair-trigger capacity for horrific violence, he is left unshackled and unguarded in a locked room at Arkham Asylum with a nurse he proceeds to kill with his bare hands. What follows is Joker’s one moment of a true cinematic grace — Arthur Fleck racing down a long blinding-white hallway in slo-mo leaving behind a trail of bloody footprints as he runs to the light — but by then it’s too late. That joke isn’t funny anyone.