At some point in the late 20th century society decided that clowns were no longer funny, that rather they were the stuff of nightmares. At some point in the early 21st century Hollywood decided that simple entertainment was no longer enough, that movies in which heroes prance around in spandex should be competing for Oscars, and so the Hollywood blockbuster became as dull and soulless as the sort of worthy social dramas we previously associated with Awards season. When Heath Ledger won a posthumous statuette for his performance as Batman’s arch-nemesis The Joker in Christoper Nolan’s gritty, Michael Mann/William Friedkin influenced The Dark Knight, the comic book movie had well and truly grown up.
Whether it should have grown up or not has divided commentators ever since. Personally, I’ll take the campy fun of Adam West’s Batman over the morose and ‘serious’ iterations of the character we’ve become saddled with in the past couple of decades. Hollywood’s idea of ‘serious’ filmmaking is now simply to deliver ‘dark’ and ‘twisted’ takes on what were once perennial childhood favorites. The Joker has already been subjected to this makeover by Ledger and the insufferable Jared Leto, but now we get ‘dark and twisted’ dialed up to 11 in director Todd Phillips’ Joker.
Phillips’ version of Gotham City is an approximation of ‘70s/’80s era New York, when piles of uncollected garbage littered the streets of the bankrupt Big Apple, and crime was so high that the NYPD would present newly-arrived tourists with pamphlets advising them to turn and leave the city. Amid this hostile environment we find Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a mentally ill middle-aged man who lives at home with his ailing mother (Frances Conroy) and struggles to make a wage dressing up as a clown and parading retail signs around the streets. Arthur (named presumably after Arthur Bremer, the would-be political assassin who inspired Taxi Driver, one of the many ‘70s movies Phillips borrows from here) harbors dreams of becoming a stand-up comic, but there’s one problem - he’s not remotely funny. Life is no laughing matter for Arthur, who is bullied and beaten in the streets and struggles with a mental condition, one of the symptoms of which causes him to break out in uncontrollable laughter whenever he feels nervous.
When Arthur is gifted a gun by a workmate, things begin to spiral out of control. After committing the first of his acts of violence in a Bernie Goetz inspired subway incident, Arthur becomes a folk hero for Gotham’s downtrodden masses. The clown mask becomes a symbol for a social uprising, and the slogan “Kill the rich” becomes a rallying call.
Joker’s appropriation of bankruptcy era New York is simply window dressing to give the film a cheap sense of place. It fails to understand the racial and class dynamics that made the iconic American city such a tense place at that time. Gotham rallies around Arthur for killing three white Wall Street brokers, taking out their anger on the rich and powerful. This is a disingenuous repurposing of a real life time and place. In 1984, New Yorkers rallied around Bernie Goetz after he shot four black teenagers, and the ills of the city were directed not to its upper echelons, but to its downtrodden minorities, leading to racist stop and search policies, the Disneyfication of Times Square, the Central Park Five and even the mass destruction of disco records.
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Ever since Joker premiered at the Venice Film Festival, where it bizarrely took home the top prize, there’s been much hysteria in the US regarding concerns that it may inspire mass shootings by young men who view its title character as a hero. While I don’t rule out the chances of this happening, given how frequently such incidents now occur in America, it would be absurd to scapegoat the movie rather than question the availability of firearms. In a pre-emptive defense, the filmmakers have come out and stated that their movie is in no way meant to portray Joker as a sympathetic character. Sorry, but that’s bollocks. This film relies heavily on its audience having a degree of sympathy for Arthur. For the first half of the movie he’s portrayed as a victim, so if we’re not meant to feel sorry for him then it’s a mean-spirited case of victim blaming. Who wouldn’t feel sorry for a man struggling with mental illness who is subjected to violence?
The trouble with the mental illness aspect is that, like so much of this movie, it’s simply lazy window dressing. It amounts to little more than a couple of physical tics and close-ups of Arthur’s journal, filled with suicidal thoughts and on-the-nose comments about how society fails the mentally ill. Midway through, Arthur has his meds cut off, but he seems far more together and focussed once he’s free of medication. Is Joker subtly pushing an anti-vax agenda?
If the movie doesn’t want us to sympathize with Arthur, then why do his worst, most unpalatable atrocities occur offscreen? We see the Wall Street assholes killed in graphic detail, because the movie suggests we can all get behind the murder of Wall Street assholes, but when Arthur inflicts violence on unambiguously innocent (and, crucially, neither white nor male) victims who have in no way wronged him personally, we’re never shown the act, because the filmmakers clearly feel that to do so would be to distance the audience from whatever sympathy we might still have for Arthur. Yet, in a truly indefensible piece of filmmaking that reminds us Phillips is the man behind the obnoxious Hangover comedies, the film has no such qualms about making a visual gag out of a little person’s inability to reach a door handle.
The thing is, great filmmakers can present us with despicable characters and keep us invested without ever asking us to sympathize with them. Joker knows this because it borrows from a half dozen such films. One of the movies it nods to is A Clockwork Orange. What’s so clever about Kubrick’s film is how he brings us to a place where we feel like there’s no possible redemption for its horrific central character, only to then make us feel sympathetic when we see his cruel treatment at the hands of the state in the second half. This is the sort of challenge that’s too difficult for a limited filmmaker like Phillips to pull off, so instead he takes the easy route of going about things the opposite way around. It’s easy to make us hate a previously sympathetic character by simply having them commit an irredeemable atrocity, but not so easy to make us feel for a character whom we’ve watched commit a litany of atrocities.
Another movie heavily borrowed from (to a degree that brushes close to simple plagiarism) is Scorsese’s The King of Comedy. Just like Robert De Niro’s Rupert Pupkin, Arthur is obsessed with appearing on a late night talk show, hosted here by Murray Franklin (played by De Niro, just to make the reference all the more explicit). As with Scorsese’s film, Phillips’ includes fantasy sequences in which Arthur imagines himself on his idol’s show, but they’re nowhere near as disturbingly pathetic as the image of Pupkin alone in his bedroom surrounded by cardboard cutouts of celebrities.
The movies of the ‘70s and early ‘80s that Joker riffs so heavily on possessed a brutal honesty Phillips shies away from. Even grindhouse thrillers like Maniac and Driller Killer made it abundantly clear that the victims of their disturbed protagonists came from the most vulnerable corners of society. With its pretentiously morose score and moody cinematography, Joker probably believes it has more to say than such video nasty era thrillers, but it doesn’t provide nearly as much to chew on as William Lustig and Abel Ferrara’s films. In this way Joker is to grindhouse cinema as High Noon was to the western genre, - it’s a grindhouse movie for people who feel they’re above such basic thrills, yet fail to recognize the depth hidden beneath such movies’ exploitative facades. Joker may open with the early ‘70s version of the Warner Bros logo, but it takes a lot more than such surface level frills to evoke America’s greatest era of filmmaking. For all its vintage dressing, Joker is simply another pointless comic book origin story.
Joker - 2 stars out of 5
Director: Todd Phillips; Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Zazie Beetz, Robert De Niro, Marc Maron, Frances Conroy, Shea Whigham, Brett Cullen, Brian Tyree Henry, Bill Camp