Spoiler Alert: This review contains spoilers about “Joker.”
Before Todd Phillips’ “Joker” even hit the big screen, it sparked nationwide debates concerning the danger that it could pose to the public. News outlets cautioned parents and audience members that the gore-soaked movie could lead to a rise in copy-cat shooters; movie theatre chains banned masks from the showings or even chose not to show it altogether. A movie this seeped in controversy, this highly anticipated, must have fought its way onto the big screen with something to say, right? Well, not necessarily.
“Joker” recounts a man’s descent into madness, captured over the course of a few short weeks in crime-ridden Gotham City. Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), is a clown-for-hire who spends his time caring for his disabled mother (who he lives with) and aspiring desperately to be a comic. Other features include Robert De Niro as an adored talk show host and Frances Conroy as Fleck’s ailing mother. The film is anxiety-inducing, it’s entertaining, it’s beautifully produced and it’s entirely soulless.
To address the clown in the room — yes, this movie feels like a misshapen product of its time. Phillips, whose previous body of work includes dude-bro comedies “The Hangover” saga and “Road Trip,” has stated multiple times that the film is “not political.” It feels disingenuously comical to make such a statement about a movie whose center is a mentally ill loner who emulates the violence around him, lashing out at his coworkers who alienated him, his mother who neglected him and the woman who rejected him.
At times, “Joker” feels self-congratulatory. It’s fully aware that its villain encapsulates dark traits that verge dangerously near to the incel community of Reddit. Every minute that passes, the film seems to nudge you from the side with its mantra — this isn’t your average comic book movie, and our hero is nowhere to be found.
At other times, it seems smug in its often heavy-handed statement on modern society. Spoiler alert: The society in question is dismally depressing. Phillips and screenwriter Scott Silver pull no punches, almost to the point of overkill. In the opening scene, Fleck has a store closing sign ripped from his hands from a gang of kids. When he chases them desperately down the street, clown shoes slapping on the pavement and calling to passersby for help to no avail, they lure him into an ally and beat him brutally. Punches aren’t just physical; it’s a new kind of pain when Fleck is bathing his mother and she says, seemingly well-meaning: “Fleck, aren’t comedians supposed to be funny?”
The gloom emerges in most aspects of the story; Fleck has a court-mandated psychologist for the first half of the film, who serves only to inform him that welfare is being cut and that he will no longer receive medication. Fleck’s delusional mother is a former worker holding out on desperate hope that her former employers will respond to her pleas for worker’s comp. Fleck’s tick of spontaneous laughter is attributed to a “medical condition,” and it’s beaten nearly to death as Fleck helplessly laughs his way through stress, pain and anger. Phillips, however, never seems to concern himself with the details of what condition it is, or how Fleck developed it. For Phillips, it’s enough to submerge Fleck in another layer of disturbia.
As a purely aesthetic product, “Joker” is impressive. Like every film set in Gotham, the shots are tinted in sickly green and smog. Phillips creates some truly stunning shots with Joker’s characteristic makeup, which serves not to hide his face, but to illuminate every line, pore and tear. The camera loves Phoenix and hardly leaves his side throughout the 122 minute run time. It’s a forced intimacy that does the film well.
The film sometimes verges on the gleefully insincere, but Phoenix’s performance is a saving grace. His gaunt, serpentine frame (Phoenix lost 52 pounds for the role) is so expressive, so extravagant, that his emotions are at times too palpable to even watch. The casual viewer can’t help but to cringe away in the case of his utterly bombed performance at a comic club, or at the sheer childish joy on his face when he sees his performance aired on national television, only to utterly fall when he realizes the audience is laughing at him, not with him.
As Fleck’s violent acts escalate, he seems neither horrified or exhilarated by his deeds; instead, he experiences a revelation of his own being.
“For my whole life, I didn’t know if I even really existed,” he tells his psychologist. “But I do. And people are starting to notice.”
“Joker” wants to be noticed. And it’s safe to say that after grossing $234 million globally in its first three days, it has been. But this character study, although polished, lacks character. I believe Phillips when he says that it’s not a political statement; truly, “Joker” doesn’t have much to say.
Gabi DiPaulo is the Living editor for The Beacon. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.