It’s hard to talk about this movie without engaging in the discourse surrounding it. I’ve done more than my fair share on Twitter in various capacities both defending the movie against people who claim this is going to cause violence and also trying to rail against militant fanboys that were upset that the Rotten Tomatoes score dropped.
I see a lot of ridiculousness surrounding this film from many different perspectives. But let’s talk about the movie that won the Venice Film Festival Gold Lion and is claimed to be a bold character study without going into the discourse surrounding the film.
Let’s cut to chase, Joker is…fine, but it misses the mark, neither worthy of all the praise nor vindictive enough to warrant the controversy.
The Positives (and a Rising Phoenix)
Let me just say the same thing a lot of people are saying, I’m glad this movie exists because I like the idea of this movie more than the movie itself.
I enjoy Marvel but I’m glad that Warner Bros/DC is able to take a different path. Joaquin Phoenix is outstanding as a character with a quiet rage and a pathetic streak that does more to develop the character than the screenplay is able to convey.
Phoenix shows a strong commitment toward all the different sides of Arthur Fleck/Joker and I bought him as both the boiling danger and the individual that wants to make people smile. Then came the third act.
Part of me wonders if the director and co-writer Todd Phillips had the ending in mind first and tried to work his way back from there because that’s where the material and the narrative found its footing and gave this movie the energy it needed.
The Generic Writing
Although we had a great third act and a phenomenal lead actor, the movie misses the mark in so many ways. This might sound weird but I found the movie oddly safe.
For a “deep character piece” about a psychopath, I felt like I was two beats ahead of the narrative at all times. I knew where we were going and where we would end up. Albeit, that isn’t a bad thing on its own but the movie takes the easiest routes to get there (and twists really don’t work).
Everything you expect to see in a movie as this, happens.
For a movie being called bold and different, I was shocked by how this felt lacking to me in imagination. Joker repeats the same paths of other movies that came before it without really adding its own touch to it. All that’s different is the foundation of a DC comic.
Would people be calling it as bold if it was called “Arthur”? In the context of superhero-based comic book movies, yes this is bold but in the context of movies, in general, I never felt it was watching it.
Phillips hands you nearly everything on a silver platter, he over-explains and over-plays his hand entirely too much.
It doesn’t help that Arthur’s character is a little underwritten. What does he believe in? What are his weird obsessions? Part of me feels this is a story about Arthur’s relationship to his audience (because that’s the only thing that makes his embrace the clowns at the end make sense). There is also the focal point of his parents but that doesn’t get the attention it needs to feel fleshed out, visually or narratively.
Also, the clown uprising that happens in Gotham has very little to do with him and his embrace of it at the end feels hollow.
That’s another thing about the movie that bothers me: the whole ‘rich vs. poor’ is completely under cooked. Joker wants you to believe in the urban decay and the disparity of rich vs. poor but doesn’t do the leg work to really show how that dynamic relates to Arthur or the people around him. It’s all surface. Small bits of dialogue here and there but nothing that really gives any of it depth. You need to do more than just say something. It’s “show and tell” in the movies: We need not just tell.
Phillips shows these mistakes in his writing. The dialogue is pointed and calls far too much attention to itself. The narrative stops and goes entirely too often with various shifting goals and drives for Arthur that come and go too quickly making this movie feel rushed yet entirely too long as well.
The Sights and Sounds
Visually, the movie is well done. The colors are appropriate. Lawrence Sher’s cinematography gives the movie a feeling that the camera is always on the edge, like Fleck.
The costume and production design are appropriate as well. Phillips’ direction with the actors are good, Phoenix isn’t the only performance worthy of praise. De Niro (while not in the movie much) plays well off of Phoenix in the movie’s finale.
On a small positive note, Hildur Guðnadóttir’s score is amazing but Phillips leans on it too much, almost as a crutch. This is supposed to be an intimate character piece but the score is overpowering and loud, undercutting many of the small moments alone with Arthur.
A Bold-less Film
Quite honestly, the answer to Joker lies in Phillips’ previous film, War Dogs. That was another movie that was clearly inspired by the works of Martin Scorsese and what it ended up being was a well-shot, well-acted, and entertaining film but lacked any of the depth that Scorsese brings to his movies.
Joker is very much like that.
This movie is brimming with self-importance; it wants you to take it seriously so badly but doesn’t have the depth to back it up. It didn’t satisfy me as a character piece, Fleck’s plight was never that interesting as he meanders through the narrative. I wanted this film to be bolder and push the envelope but all I got was a recycle hits of films like Taxi Driver, King of Comedy, American Psycho and Fight Club (to defend the movie I think it’s a tad disingenuous to simply dismiss this as a Taxi Driver knockoff).
Some people are talking about this movie like it’s the next A Clockwork Orange, a bold violent character study that caused much controversy in its day. But, A Clockwork Orange was bold not just because it was violent or had a “villain” at the center of the narrative.
A Clockwork Orange was bold and challenging because it forces you to reconsider the very foundations of your morals, the concepts of free will, and ask the questions about freedom vs. security.
It forced you into the shoes of a revolting character and made you consider his point of view. It had me thinking for days after I first saw it.
Joker didn’t force me to think about anything. I didn’t feel like it challenged me as a viewer. I never had to consider Arthur’s ideologies because he doesn’t have one outside of vague platitudes about society and mental illness. I never had to consider the moral implications of rising up against the rich because the movie never wanted to examine systematic economic inequality.
In conclusion: This isn’t a radical film. It’s a well-acted riff on better character pieces that came before it without any of the depth. I hope Warner Bros make more films like this but Phillips wasn’t up to the task to make it.