Directed by Todd Phillips
YOU’D THINK the director of The Hangover doing an aggressively somber adaptation of an iconic comic-book character was a joke, but no. You’d think the movie being given an eight-minute standing ovation, then a Golden Lion at the 76th Venice Festival was meant to be an elaborate prank but apparently not.
No, this is a serious-as-a-heart-attack origins story of the character created by Bill Finger, Bob Kane, Jerry Robinson (who exactly did what still in dispute), previously incarnated on screens big and small by Cesar Romero, Jack Nicholson, Heath Ledger, and Jared Leto (not even going into the animation voices, except that the most memorable was Mark Hamill’s).
Director Todd Philips assembles a grab bag of Joker stories and favorite (*koff koff* Scorsese *koff koff*) movies, mostly Taxi Driver and King of Comedy but unlike say Brian de Palma or James Gray, who brazenly quote from others to later take off into their own personal ethers, his feels more like rote transcription, photocopied images pinned to his inner bedroom walls. If he jerked off to them I’d grudgingly grant him respect for the perversity of his taste, but no; we’re all invited to the group jerkoff, a grand repackaging of a classic DC supervillain, the ultimate incel (involuntary celibate) for our sexually-deprived firearm-supplied times.
The first half is I suppose best, when Phillips is most closely channeling Taxi Driver: handsomely lit, rain-streaked city streets, ostensibly Gotham but shot mostly in New Jersey or New York, and I’m thinking: eye-catching, but no patch on Michael Chapman’s blood red, steel blue, concrete gray work, verite realism pushed to the garish expressionist edge. Hildur Guðnadóttir’s music is of a piece in suggesting urban alienation, but Bernard Hermann’s sax and snare drum score both pointed up the muddled ideals percolating in Travis Bickle’s head (the score is what Bickle wants playing as soundtrack to the movie of his life) and struggled with Scorsese’s more skeptical imagery (basically: any point of view not Bickle’s — Betsy’s and Palantine’s are crucial — plus the floating overhead shot that surveys the climactic bloodbath).
That I’d say was the genius of the film, four major artists at the peak of their powers, working with and against each other and making sparks fly: Schrader who half-believed in the righteousness of his vigilante; Scorsese and De Niro, who were horrified; and Hermann, who intensified the conflict with his alternately swooning and menacing score. The only one with any artistic ambitions or sensibilities I see in Joker is Joaquin Phoenix; like his character (birth name Arthur Fleck) he’s stranded in the dark, all alone and with no real support.
Then Phillips throws in King of Comedy and you say: huh? King is a more ambiguous, more precise work, a scalpel to Taxi’s Smith & Wesson hand cannon. Referencing King makes sense I suppose — the guy is supposed to be a comedian — but the way it’s shoehorned in here highlights Phillips’ grab-bag approach. King asserts that celebrities are jerks and the people who stalk them are dangerous jerks who (though it never says this out loud) probably deserve each other; this movie plunks its sympathies solidly behind Fleck, giving us the sob story of his past, complete with physical abuse and adoption papers, jerking our tears as shamelessly as that other example of the self-destructive, self-absorbed male weepie, Bradley Cooper’s debut remake (with no Lady Gaga for fresh-faced counterpoint, alas).
Plus King is funny. Joker can barely muster a decent joke — maybe a few cheap digs at Leigh Gill as Fleck’s short co-worker — but King made us squirm in recognition of how far its protagonist Rupert Pupkin (Robert de Niro again) was prepared to go to meet Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis), and how far Jerry was prepared to go to keep himself apart. Joker never comes anywhere near that level of disturbing because: 1.) it opts for a more hyperbolic look, a comic book’s idea of noir; and, 2.) we’re kept firmly on Fleck’s side, no matter how horrific his acts — bound even tighter in fact, since the acts are caused by his worsening madness and he’s clearly the victim. No ambivalence save the kind done in bright primary colors.
The movie takes off from Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke which Moore has since repudiated (rightly so, I think). That said, Moore’s treatment is not without interest: his Joker starts out an ordinary man who gave up his chemical engineering career in the half-assed hope that he can succeed as a stand-up comic; no mental condition, no history of abuse, just a depressed, basically decent guy who had one really bad day and snaps — hasn’t looked back since.
Modulating the character instead of starting him out at the extreme lower end of society helps, I think; it gives him a direction to go (down), gives us the chance to see ourselves in him — to see the possibility that extreme trauma might drive us crazy (or otherwise, which is the part of Moore’s story that’s often ignored). Insanity (not to mention a history of abuse and adoption) in Phillips’ movie is flashed at us like an ID badge — laughs at strange moments? It’s a condition. Violent tendencies? Condition. Imaginary relationship? Take a wild effing guess.
But I forget, it’s a comic book movie — we shouldn’t be applying high standards of characterization or motivation, though I’ve seen a few adaptations that don’t do too bad (Ghost World; American Splendor; A History of Violence) and a few original works involving masked vigilantes that present reasonably rounded protagonists (Super).
“But,” I’m asked, “surely you appreciate Phoenix’s eponymous performance, his latest and best chance to win an Oscar?” I’ve stopped trying to pick out performances; a performance that stands out in an otherwise bad movie is interesting — it suggests the actor was stuck in a poor production and just decided to do something creative on his own — but the movie remains bad. I think someone like Brad Pitt — who’s more Hollywood star than artist of Phoenix’s calibre — actually turned in a better performance in James Gray’s Ad Astra because the actor did what the director needed him to do: be the withdrawn alienated figure at the center of the interplanetary epic (which I find wonderfully perverse because it’s a large-scale production with a withdrawn alienated figure at the center). Phoenix is hanging out there in a vacuum: he has a muddled scenario with no rounded character to play, just a bunch of hazy notions cobbled together from different movies, ultimately meant to forcefit themselves into a pre-existing mythology. The other characters are disposable if not imaginary; even the mob that eventually idolizes him seems motivated more by script direction than recognizably human drives (“He’s the Joker! Follow him!”)*.
As for that last question — does Phoenix deserve an Oscar? It’s not even his best work — he was more unsettling in You Were Never Really Here where his swollen belly suggests depressed dissipation better than his emaciated ribs ever did here (I can imagine, having been there myself, a depressed man over- rather than undereating, especially in binge-prone America). Plus Lynne Ramsey, unlike Phillips, is a real filmmaker with an unsettlingly oblique take on action sequences, catching Phoenix on surveillance camera rounding corners or just passing out a doorway while the man he’s just bludgeoned with a ball-peen hammer collapses to the floor. Plus there’s the moment Joe gutshots the man who killed his mother and, as the man lies there on their kitchen floor dying, joins him in an agonized rendition of “I’ve Never Been to Me” — nothing in Phillips’ movie comes close to being as perversely tender, or grotesquely funny.
Does Phoenix deserve an Oscar? Considering that I think of an Oscar more as an indicator of big box-office and savvy marketing than of quality cinema — sure, why not? It’s flashy enough, and controversial enough, more in terms of articles written than ideas involved. Much good it’ll do him, and I suspect he knows as much.
*I suppose you can say the rioters recognize him as the killer of famous talk show host Murray Franklin (De Niro yet again) on TV — but if they were out on the streets rioting, when did they watch the show? And why should they care, since Franklin was never established as pro- or anti-rioter? While we’re at it, why would Franklin use the video of Fleck’s stand-up without permission, then invite him to the show without even a cursory security check (the guy could be a psycho!)? And why, if Thomas Wayne (if you don’t know who he is you probably shouldn’t be watching this) is a billionaire, wouldn’t he spend real money on security, for his son in the garden, for himself in the men’s room, for his family when out watching a movie (Couldn’t he afford a private theater?)?