Directed by Todd Phillips
From 11th October 2019
Reviewed by Ashley McGovern
Where could you take this guy? That’s what I thought about during Joker, the new movie about the Batverse’s most notorious maniacal villain. You already expect him, based on a lifetime of watching face painted stars, to be a jittery, wide-eyed freak, but Joaquin Phoenix has a few more neurological ills to carry here. Director Todd Phillips and co-writer Scott Silver have lumped DC’s deranged prop comic with a serious (and apparently very real) condition: pathological laughter. At any time a harsh, chest-burning laugh can erupt, over which he has no control. He can only try and stifle it through teary eyes.
Obviously avoid taking him to funerals, highbrow museums or peepshows. To grab a casual coffee and make it look natural you’d have to be in an asylum padded cafe, and even then talk exclusively about plans to poison the water system. Anywhere else and he simply doesn’t fit in, which is the whole point.
This jagged entry into the DC Universe is not about the usual Joker tropes. This will come as a real shock to comic book fans who want a simplistic moral face off. This is a dark piece about a desperate, severely depressed loner. His inner world is bleaker than a Christine Chubbock weather report, and the society shoving past him is no better.
Cinematographer Lawrence Sher has done a brilliant job of making Gotham look truly diseased, split between rich politicos and a grimy underclass waiting for the lighter paper of revolution. Bring these together and the movie bides its time before the Joker, here a struggling comedian and all-round deadbeat called Arthur Fleck, lashes out in extremis.
The movie follows Arthur during a blurry-eyed, rough few weeks in the city gone rogue. He gets sacked from his crummy job as a hire clown, mugged by street kids, and bombs at a stand-up comedy night because all he does is laugh unstoppably on stage. (Though this being in the 1970s, I thought he might have clocked Robin Williams in the audience and just wanted to keep his material). A clinical depressive, he’s always carrying around what looks like Heath Ledger’s last prescription. To make matters worse, his disinterested social worker cancels his weekly catch-ups because the service is axed by the local authority.
Long story short, when three City arseholes decide to pick on him on a late night tube and taunt him with ‘Send in The Clowns’, he snaps and shoots all of them. Once the story breaks, the as-yet-unknown clownish gunman becomes the poster boy of Gotham’s seething rebels. Explicitly apolitical himself, Arthur’s just glad of the attention – at least people are not ignoring or patronising him any more. A subplot emerges about Arthur’s potential connection to billionaire mayoral candidate Thomas Wayne and the pampered public school fag Bruce, who looks terrified of ladybirds never mind bats, but I’ll say no more on that.
Joker, for all it’s anxious subtexts, is a one man show for Joaquin Phoenix. It’s a classic star vehicle movie. He’s playing the role he was born to watch his brother play. He’s pretty good in parts, but it’s hard to distinguish between moments of unbearable pain and the bits where he’s following the movie rule book on how psychopaths behave. Obviously he does funny indulgent dances, he camps up, he looks blank, he gazes dreamily out of a police car window.
Everything rides on the audiences love for cliched maniacs and an impoverished film diet. I’m sure lots of people will be gulled into thinking this is a towering acting performance, an unforgettable picture of criminal insanity. Well, Titicut Follies it aint. I can assure you it takes just as much actor’s craft to play Steve McDonald unloading The Rovers’ fruit machine as it does to twitch and grimace in a straight jacket.
The performance does, however, serve the movie’s premise: the ‘there’s no such thing as society’ principle leads to anarchic misery. Gotham’s malaise is strikingly well done, and the movie does succeed in making Arthur’s Scorsese-style conversion believable. It’s just not as subtle as it thinks it is; you need only listen to the movie’s soundtrack to discover the bad faith and cliched mechanics that lie behind the villainy. Joker has an awful case of the Tarantinos.
Ever since Reservoir Dogs, the easiest way to score brilliant cinematic irony, detachment and sociopathic insight has been to play cool semi-nostalgic tracks over a movie scene. And this movie is truly larded with annoying and intellectually cheap uses of Sinatra and Gary Glitter to underscore the rush of violence or insanity. Yet again it’s a trick: you amp up whatever electrified emotions are going on inside the central character with a 70s anthem.
You pay in copyright what you save on screenwriting talent. It’s like listening to a pseud grab hold of Spotify at a party, it impresses no one.
All in all, Joker is a stacked deck of movie tricks, satisfying but nothing more.