Joker movie review: sad clown, bad clown, not at all a rad clown

Joker red light

MaryAnn’s quick take…

Not fit to lick the boots of Martin Scorsese or Christopher Nolan, though the height of its ambition appears to be its desperation to do so. A movie as pathetically ineffectual as its protagonist.
I’m “biast” (pro): nothing
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
women’s participation in this film
male director, male screenwriter, male protagonist
(learn more about this)

Alas, the only remotely entertaining or even mildly interesting aspect of Joker is the notion that it might be so incendiary a depiction of a white man ignored by society who turns to violence that it incites real-life violence by real-life white men who think they are being ignored by society.

In a word: Ha!

To take even this lickspittle snippet of resonance away from the movie, this notion is nought but a metatextual one, not even part of the actual movie. We could say that this is ironically appropriate, if also unintentionally so. Or is it intentional? Did someone set out to make a movie that would (hopefully?) serve as a call to arms for disaffected white men?

Whatever: This pathetically ineffectual movie– as pathetically ineffectual as its protagonist — can only wish to be so dangerous.

Joker Joaquin Phoenix
I’ve also been that person having a public breakdown on mass transit, and yet somehow I’ve managed to refrain from killing anyone…

Joker is faux Scorsese. It is ersatz Christopher Nolan. It is not fit to lick the boots of either Taxi Driver or The Dark Knight, though the height of its ambition would appear to be its desperation to do so. This is a movie so dull, so obvious, that that is the most criminal thing about its portrait of a man “driven” to criminality by “society.” Oh, is Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix: Mary Magdalene, Irrational Man) — soon to be the homicidal antagonist to Batman known as the Joker — sad? Is he lonely? Is his life not what he’d hoped it would be? Welcome to humanity, asshole. Deal with it.

Director — and coscreenwriter, with Scott Silver (The Finest Hours, 8 Mile) — Todd Phillips is a filmmaker whose entire “oeuvre” (I use the word loosely) has been about celebrating white-male inadequacy, about white men somehow getting away with skating through life thoroughly unengaged in anything beyond partying (see his Hangover movies), or humiliating white men who try to grow up (see his appalling Due Date). Now, Phillips is attempting to be “serious” by removing all the plausibility-denying fantasy from a comic-book villain by making a movie about him that is “realistic” and “gritty” or whatever-the-hell he thinks gives him cover for indulging male rage as a sorry-not-sorry *wink* response to an unreasonable world.

Joker Robert De Niro
I love De Niro, but he is the last person who should be hosting a late-night TV talk show…

And yet: It’s still all the same-old justifying nonsense. There is nothing original here… and not because it’s about a comic-book character who has been depicted on screens large and small multiple times. Another white man who has not been handed fame and fortune and respect and sexy willing babes in return for having done absolutely fucking nothing with his life is angry. Cry us a river, pal.

Hello! When you take away the plausibility-denying comic-book fantasy… when you take away the over-the-top absurdity… when you take away the perfectly acceptable nonsensical dispatch of a reason for a clown-faced killer to terrorize a city… now you’re literally vilifying mental illness. (Phillips and Silver give Arthur a condition, in which he laughs uncontrollably in moments that are socially inappropriate, that may be the authentic pseudobulbar affect, or may be something of their own invention. Either way: No.)

Thanks, I hate it. This is not what the world needs right now.

Welcome to a visually washed-out retro Gotham, featuring overtures of late-70s, early 80s New York City — there’s a strike by sanitation workers that is causing black bags of garbage to disgustingly pile up on city streets, which actually happened in the Big Apple in 1977 and 1981. This is where I’m supposed to say that Joaquin Phoenix is “daring” and “radical” or some shit for having lost a lot of weight to play Arthur Fleck, failed stand-up comic, on-call clown for streetside promotions and children’s-ward hospital visits. I’m sure the actor pushed himself physically… but he doesn’t find anything psychologically fresh or intriguing in this character. Arthur is not happy with caring for his not-at-all-well mother (Frances Conroy: Welcome to Happiness, Stone), and he fantasizes a romance with his neighbor (Zazie Beetz [Geostorm]… and fuck this movie for treating her awesome presence even more poorly than Deadpool 2 does). It seems we are meant to automatically, reflexively feel bad for him… as if caring for blood relatives and dreaming of getting it on with people out of our league is not everyday reality for the vast majority of the human race.

Random assholes taking inspiration from a homicidal clown? Well, that’s plausible, at least…

Arthur has not been granted the life he wants without having to do the work to earn it… though he fantasizes about that, too, via a late-night TV talk show hosted by *checks notes* Robert De Niro’s Murray Franklin; Arthur likes to dream that Franklin’s show will see Arthur’s alleged comedic genius, invite him on, and, you know, etc. De Niro’s (Joy, The Intern) presence here might be the most inexplicable aspect of this damn movie. I am a huge De Niro fan, but he is bizarrely miscast: he simply does not have the charming, relaxing personality America wants for drifting off to sleep with the TV on in the background. This casting is likely meant to be a nod to De Niro’s King of Comedy turn, but even that suggests a willful misreading of The King of Comedy and of De Niro’s entire cinematic history. Jesus wept, no. Just no.

The real world of 2019 handed Todd Phillips a platter of easy pickin’s: income inequality (billionaire Thomas Wayne [Brett Cullen: The Runaways, Gridiron Gang], ie, Batman’s dad, is the ostensible villain here); the collapse of social services (the safety net that helps Arthur deal with his mental illness is cut); even the not-so-quiet rage of pathetically ineffectual men threatening to boil over into civil unrest. And Joker does not one thing interesting or engaging with it. It pushes no envelopes. It is not edgy in any respect. It is just… here. And it assumes that its mere existence is reason to applaud. It most definitely is not.

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.
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