“Why couldn’t it have been The Smoker or The Midnight Toker?”
by DAN LYBARGER ECritic | October 5, 2019
From watching his latest movie, I can tell that Todd Philips loves the movies Martin Scorsese made in the 1970s and 80s as much as I do. As much as I’d like to sit back with him and down a beer or two discussing those films, it’s disheartening that his own, dark gritty film makes me want to run back to my DVDs of the good stuff.
Like Raging Bull, Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, Joker is grim and violent. Philips even begins the movie with the 1970s-80s vintage Warner Bros. logo to acknowledge his predecessors.
Even though he’s telling the origin story of Batman’s most famous nemesis in the fictional Gotham City, he effortlessly recaptures the look Ed Koch-era New York. That probably took a lot of his time that he could have invested into making a story that’s as engrossing as it is gross. There is a brutal beating and some gunplay, but all the bloodshed and gore is for naught. Whereas most stories, comic book or otherwise, are about a character’s rise of fall, Joker seems curiously moribund.
Instead of moving in an arc, the movie flatlines early.
As the title character a.k.a. Arthur Fleck, Joaquin Phoenix giggles at inappropriate times and tries to make the residents of Gotham laugh even though he has no idea what constitutes a joke and can barely hold a job as a clown for parties. Arthur is trying to care for his ailing mother (Frances Conroy), but his meager income and lack of any discernible talent make the task increasingly difficult.
His mom badgers him into contacting tycoon Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) for assistant because he once employed her and is running for mayor. She reasons that an act of generosity might help his campaign.
Perhaps a little reciprocated kindness could have prevented the birth of a supervillain. Either that or better social service could help, but the evisceration of Gotham’s safety net pushes Arthur from being annoyingly pathetic to being annoyingly homicidal.
Phoenix has excelled at playing unhinged and dangerous characters in the past. What hurts the actor and the film is that Philips and co-screenwriter Scott Silver can’t figure where to take Arthur from derangement. At the beginning of the film, Arthur is already there.
In Two Lovers and The Master, Phoenix’s characters started off as troubled but were able to hold a viewer’s interest because they struggled to obtain equilibrium in hostile environments. While Gotham is certainly hellish and confusing,
Arthur is off-kilter for the whole film, so Phoenix’s efforts are off-putting. Arthur gradually begins to resent how Wayne and Wall Street fat cats have benefited from Gotham, and the rest suffer. Philips curiously makes poor people like Arthur unsympathetic.
When Arthur isn’t flailing to get through work days where kids on the street assault him, he’s dreaming of how a Johnny Carson-like talk show host (Robert De Niro) will put him on TV and turn him into a star. If the ravings in Arthur’s notebook are any indication, his weak puns and inane observations aren’t ready for primetime or an after-hours infomercial.
Featuring Robert De Niro in a supporting role is a misstep because his presence reminds viewers of the troubled men he played Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy. In both cases, De Niro’s character had fortunes that rose or fell instead of simply staying put. Scorsese is also a master at presenting characters who have fascinating stories but can’t be trusted. In Taxi Driver, we know that Travis Bickle is not a hero even though he thinks he is.
Philips doesn’t have the storytelling chops to pull off complicated characters like Travis and doesn’t seem to be trying.
The supporting characters are so one-note, it’s hard to care of any of them escape the impending violence. Arthur’s fumbling courtship of his neighbor (Zazie Beetz) seems cryptic not because there’s hidden meaning but because neither Philips nor Silver knows how to write convincing banter for them.
Philips shoehorns his own tale into the DC Universe, and it fits poorly. Thomas Wayne and his son Bruce seem to be there as if fictional characters could be placed under contractual obligation. At this point, Thomas and Martha Wayne have been killed so many times on screen that Joan of Arc pities them. While Marvel movies are now inching away from needless origin stories, DC seems to be operating under the assumption the world is afflicted with amnesia.
The violence leaves little to the imagination because Philips clearly doesn’t trust his viewers. Part of what made Heath Ledger’s turn as the Joker in The Dark Knight so powerful is that he had no clear origin. Every time he explained himself, it was an obvious lie, making anything he did next unpredictable.
Knowing that a severe beatdown is coming eliminates the shock value. After Old School and The Hangover, Philips says he can’t make comedies anymore because audiences are too easily upset.
Grime and carnage replace the laughs in his previous movies, but Philips offers no sense that anything has been lost other than the price of admission.