“I’m the bad guy?” That’s the question Michael Douglas’s character, William Foster, asks in the final minutes of the movie Falling Down. Despite the fact that the movie, up until that point, solidly aligns itself with Foster’s point of view and his sick sense of vigilante justice, this one line of dialog suggests that Falling Down is a more self-aware movie than director Todd Phillips’s Joker. There’s never any question that Joaquin Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck, who transforms himself over the course of this origin story into Batman’s greatest nemesis, is our champion.
And the movie seems to have no idea how disturbing that is.
The bleak, nihilistic Joker, which, by its final frames, leans into its fascism in a way that even the heavily reactionary Falling Down doesn’t, says a lot more about Phillips’s worldview than the character he is exploring. Its authoritarian politics aside – the hordes of extras who question authority or power are mindless thugs ready for mob justice; they carry around “resist” protest signs, to boot – Joker is also a near complete disappointment because it is derivative and unoriginal. Not only that, it doesn’t seem to understand the point of the movies that it seeks to emulate.
In interviews leading up to the release of Joker, Todd Phillips has detailed how he and cowriter Scott Silver were heavily influenced – not just while writing this movie, but in their careers as a whole – by the gritty character-studies of the 1970s. The work of Martin Scorsese in particular, who at one point was attached to Joker as a producer, is of particular inspirational importance. His film Taxi Driver, which charts the mental disintegration of cabbie Travis Bickel, is the ultimate in dark explorations of anti-heroes. Joker flows naturally from Taxi Driver’s sensibilities, but a key factor gets lost in translation.
The famously violent ending of Taxi Driver, and it’s twisted post-script which turns Bickel into a folk-hero, uses irony to call attention to both Bickel’s mental illness and the state of our society, the brokenness of which is the only explanation for it holding up Bickel as a savior. There is no such irony at play in Joker. What makes it so disturbing is that Phillips and Silver have stripped away the anti-, Arthur Fleck is a hero.
Joker also flat-out rips off plot elements for its story from other, better movies. Fleck’s obsession with becoming a stand-up comedian and being invited on his favorite late-night talk show, The Murray Franklin Show, is lifted straight from the plot of Scorsese’s rumination on the sickness of celebrity culture, The King of Comedy. In that film, Robert DeNiro plays Rupert Pupkin, who is obsessed with late-night talk show host Jerry Langford, played by Jerry Lewis. To be sure we get the connection, Phillips cast DeNiro in his movie; this time DeNiro plays the comedy elder-statesman role, Murray Franklin.
Just like with Taxi Driver, though, Phillips seems to have missed that Pupkin is held up for ridicule by Scorsese. He doesn’t transform himself into the hero of the movie by its end, like Fleck does.
Joker, and by extension, Phillips, also trades in the sort of noxious white, male grievance culture that is right at home on troll forums like 8chan. Many critics have focused on the Fleck character being a surrogate for the online subculture of incels. I don’t think that’s quite right, or at least it’s not the most egregious aspect of the movie.
Fleck – and the movie, for that matter – never directs vitriol toward women as a class. Sure, he’s lonely, and he would probably consider himself an incel if anyone asked, but romantic relationships are only a passing preoccupation of Fleck and the film. Zazie Beetz plays a nominal love interest to the man destined to become the Joker, and her character factors into one of the most brain-dead plot twists of the year that we can all see coming from about 30 minutes in.
No, the real sliminess of Joker oozes to the top in how it treats race; you know, one of the other issues us SJW cuck-libtards are stupid enough to care about. Within the first five minutes of the picture, Phillips’s aesthetic has directed all of its resentment towards people of color. It’s a trio of Latinx teenagers who steal the sign that Fleck is waving for work. When he chases them down, they smash the sign across his face and beat the shit out of him.
It’s a black woman sitting in front of Fleck on a city bus who turns around and angrily tells him to “stop bothering my kid,” when all Fleck was trying to do was make the toddler smile. One of Fleck’s coworkers, upon hearing about the kids who beat Fleck up, commiserates with him with lines like “They’re all animals.” It’s not hard to decipher what kind of people the movie considers animals.
There is a trio of white, well-to-do, stock-broker types who give Fleck the opportunity for his first foray into killing, but they feel more like a “variety is the spice of life” kind of choice than anything else. They also afford Phillips the opportunity to paint the left as bloodthirsty savages who rejoice when someone with more material wealth than them meets misfortune.
Joker also takes the lazy route in how it portrays mental illness, of which there is a long tradition in the movies of treating as scary, dangerous, and usually leading to violence. Despite that shortcoming, the one phenomenal piece of the puzzle here is Joaquin Phoenix’s outstanding, tortured performance as Arthur Fleck/Joker. Phoenix reportedly lost just over 50 pounds for the role, and his emaciated, sinewy physicality matches perfectly with his unhinged performance. As disturbing as he makes the character, and as disturbing as the movie’s ethos is, I could not for one second look away from what Phoenix was doing on screen.
Joker is a bleak, hateful movie. Phillips and his art direction team stack piles of garbage high on Gotham’s city streets to match what we see with what the movie wants us to feel. It’s oppressive and overwhelming. Add that to the regressive, nihilistic, authoritarian point-of-view that the movie espouses, and I can’t think of the last time I was so relieved for a movie to be over.
Why it got 2 stars:
- Joker is a vile movie. Its political stance is despicable, and it in no way critiques the idea that the main character is a hero. I couldn’t wait for it to be over. Joaquin Phoenix’s incendiary performance is the film’s only saving grace.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- Can we please stop with the goddamned little people jokes in movies? It’s tired and disgusting. There is one little person in the movie and the only reason he was cast was so other characters in the movie could make “midget” jokes about him. This movie is right up there with Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri (another movie I detested) as far as this particular kind of humor.
- At one point in the movie several of the characters attend a charity fundraiser screening of Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times. I believe it was the great Kevin Murphy as the character Tom Server who once said in an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000: “Never put a good movie in the middle of your bad movie.”
- Aside from the problems I have with the movie’s basic ethos, I also took issue with a few of the fundamental structural elements of the plot. There is a scene where Arthur Fleck visits a mental institution (I can’t remember if it was Arkham Asylum or not) to get some information about his mother. The talented Brian Tyree Henry is wasted in a cameo role as a records clerk at the facility. By the end of the scene, Henry’s character tells Fleck he can’t give him the file, because that violates privacy law, even though, seconds before, the character reads the details of the file to Fleck. This is just plain sloppy writing. That dovetails into my biggest storytelling problem with the movie. The way Fleck’s character is set up made it impossible for me to believe he would ever be capable of becoming the criminal mastermind I’ve seen in countless other Batman stories.
Close encounters with people in movie theaters:
- One of the most disturbing moments during my screening had to do with how a lot of the audience reacted to a scene. At one point Fleck commits a brutal, graphically violent murder. A lot of my audience responded with laughter. I’m still not decided on if the movie plays the sequence for comedy, but the way the audience reacted turned my stomach.
- On a less disturbing (but more stupid) note: Rach and I were seated next to a couple who not only talked/looked at their phones throughout the movie, but when they weren’t doing that, they were aggressively making out! Two things: 1) These were not teenagers, ya’ll. They were at least in their 30s. 2) Why would you want to pay good money to make out instead of watch the movie you’re there to see, and how can you make out during one of the most violent movies of the year?!? What is wrong with people!?!