In The Dark Knight, Joker (Heath Ledger) says, “As you know, madness is like gravity…all it takes is a little push.” In Todd Phillips’ Joker, madness is like a gas—it fills the space to which it is confined. But it’s also thin, ethereal, and lacks substance. The craft of the film—the cinematography, the score, the production design—along with Joaquin Phoenix’s magnetic, dedicated performance, is outstanding. Phillips has created an eye-catching, atmospheric take on Gotham, but he hasn’t done anything interesting with it. Instead, he’s content to push a bunch of hot-button issues like mental health, income inequality, and celebrity obsession and just kind of let it sit as a sort of madness stew, which renders the movie oddly inert. It’s a movie that wants the appearance of a challenging picture, but it never pushes its audience anywhere uncomfortable because it has the trappings of a standard superhero origin story. The more we learn about Joker, the less interesting he becomes and the narrative carries less urgency.
Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) is a clown-for-hire in a late-70s/early-80s Gotham City that looks a lot like late-70s/early-80s New York City. Arthur suffers from a condition that causes him to laugh uncontrollably when he’s upset or nervous, his brain basically processing emotional pain as laughter (a laughter that also sounds like crying). As Arthur suffers from indignities like losing his job, being bullied, and learning the truth about his mother (Francis Conroy), what remains of Arthur’s sanity starts peeling away and he starts transforming into the recognizable supervillain, The Joker.
Joker is a movie that constantly wants to have it both ways—reliable comic book story but also a gritty tale of urban madness. The film is at its most interesting when Joker’s origin story and its exploration of madness mirrors Batman’s origin. We’re all the heroes of our own story, so why is Batman—who also wears a mask and commits acts of violence—considered a hero while Joker is the villain? If you told the story from Joker’s perspective, wouldn’t he be its hero? The notion that Batman and Joker are two sides of the same coin is worth exploring, although it doesn’t really hold up since Batman isn’t “crazy”; he’s traumatized, but Joker works overtime to blur the distinction between the two. That’s kind of gross, but it goes back to a movie trying to have it both ways. Either madness, as it’s initially presented in the movie, is some ineffable thing that permeates societies and individuals like an incurable sickness, or it can be explained with a proper medical history and Arthur should just stay on his medication.
This ambivalence severely weakens the movie because rather than using a comic book-inspired story to pursue some rich ideas or tough concepts, Joker merely wears the clothing of a Martin Scorsese picture, putting on outfits like The King of Comedy or Taxi Driver without the courage to really follow through on any critique to a conclusion. For example, the Gotham we see here is slowly going mad, and a violent incident involving the Joker sets off a cascade of riots, but to what end? The film doesn’t have the wherewithal to seriously critique income inequality or specify what exactly is “broken” about society beyond maybe we should put more money and effort into our mental health care system. It wants credit for depth, but if you don’t buy it, then hey, it’s just a joke like the Joker. Heads Joker wins, tails you lose.
Some have fretted that this glorification of the Joker and giving him a superhero origin of sorts could inspire violent copycats, which I suppose is possible, but I don’t believe violent psychopathy is one Todd Phillips movie away from ignition. Yes, films have the power to affect us emotionally in both positive and negative ways, but the kicker is that Joker is kind of a nothing-burger. It doesn’t have the courage or thoughtfulness to say anything about anything beyond Joker being the hero of his own story, and I suppose that’s as liable to set someone off as anything else. If anything, it’s kind of callous towards madness, using it as a convenient crutch for Arthur’s story arc but not commenting upon it beyond, “Hey, SOCIETY, let’s not be mean to each other or else!”
When you consider these massive shortcomings in the storytelling and subtext, it’s kind of amazing Joker works even half as well as it does. A large part of that is due to Phoenix, who, let’s face it, is just one of the greatest actors of his generation. This year I’ve seen him play both Jesus and the Joker and he’s equally credible as both. His commitment to the role here is astounding, and while comparisons to Ledger’s Oscar-winning performance are inevitable, Phoenix makes the role his own while taking nothing away from Ledger’s work. Joker gives us the full arc of the character and Phoenix dives in with his entire body. I was worried this would be a case of “most acting”, but there’s a lot of nuance and pathos to his performance that makes this iteration of the Joker character feel worthwhile even if the story itself is not.
I also like the style of the movie even though Phillips relies far too heavily on slow push-ins or slow pull-backs on Arthur’s skeletal frame. The film doesn’t hide its Scorsese influences, and to be fair, if you’re going to be inspired, it may as well be inspiration from one of the best. Lawrence Sher’s cinematography is constantly striking, painting rich views of a city in decay even though the film doesn’t really have anything interesting to say about that decay. Hildur Guðnadóttir’s score is terrific and helps draw you into the madness even though the film doesn’t really have anything interesting to say about that madness.
There’s a cynical bargain the studio and the audience have made with Joker. You have an audience that’s afraid to branch out and try new things. Money is tight and time for entertainment is even tighter with so much content vying for our attention. The exchange is Joker, a movie in the mold of Martin Scorsese, but for people that are more comfortable seeing something within the familiar confines of a comic book story. And there’s nothing necessarily wrong with a comic book story or taking it seriously. The issue is that Joker uses its inviting Batman IP to give the audience the illusion of a serious film. Again, Joker isn’t really about anything and you can see why a studio would be comfortable having it as a tentpole. It doesn’t challenge anything or anyone, but it carries itself as A Very Serious Movie and so the people who see it must be Very Serious.
But no one, neither the studio nor the audience, is really reaching. If the audience wanted to see a movie with an excellent Joaquin Phoenix performance where he plays a violent character whose sanity is slowly deteriorating, they would have showed up for You Were Never Really Here, a movie that had a wide release of 233 theaters and grossed $2.5 million during its run. If Warner Bros. wanted to make a dark and gritty movie about madness and society, they didn’t have to put it behind the DC logo, but they know they can’t sell it without pre-existing IP. With Joker, both parties get to pretend they’re a part of something courageous and daring, and that’s the biggest joke of all.