I often think about an old chunk of Roger Ebert philosophy: A movie for everybody is a movie for nobody. The idea that being a narrative or cinematic cipher means a lack of identity or perspective, any political or moral courage. The obvious target is, say, the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Each movie is about an unambiguously good and exceptional individual/supergroup living up to their destiny and using their abilities for good. Basic Campbellian structure, totally innocuous and comforting storytelling. And I wonder if this is necessarily a bad thing. So, I come back to the question: What dose a piece of art owe us? Why is art inherently authentic or valuable if the intent is to challenge us or to assert some worldview?
On the film’s face, Joker seems to be the antithesis of the MCU’s thematic anonymity. But look a little closer, we see that Todd Phillips is telling nearly the same story, but with a little stank on a tried-and-true formula. Mostly under the prestigious veneer of New Hollywood classics–with naked riffs on The King of Comedy and Taxi Driver, as well as Network and American Psycho–and driven by a capital-P performance from Joaquin Phoenix, Joker serves as a handsomely crafted origin story that purports lofty goals as a character study as one of the most evil and enigmatic figures in popular culture, and the result is an oddity that is fascinating and frustrating in equal measure.
Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) is introduced staring at himself in the mirror, applying makeup for a gig as a clown. See? Because this is a story about him preparing to become the Joker? What is more telling is how Arthur stretches the sides of his mouth into a smile, forcing himself to be joyful. Because trying to stay optimistic is pretty difficult. Arthur’s trying to make his way in an early-’80s Gotham City. Crime’s way up, the city is plagued with rabble-rousing youth, and cruelly indifferent grown-ups. Arthur fits somewhere in the middle, as a stunted manchild with severe (and unspecified) mental illness living with his mother (Frances Conroy), who keeps sending letters to former employer Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen). Moreover, he meets with a counselor (April Grace) who doesn’t pay the attention to him that he wants, and who is cut off when the city’s funding runs out for mental health services. In no uncertain terms, Arthur’s got a lot on his plate.
After being jumped at the top of the film, Arthur’s co-worker Randall (Glenn Flescher) gives him a small revolver to protect himself. When his piece falls off him during a performance at a children’s hospital, Arthur’s fired immediately. Riding the subway that night, Arthur, still in his work attire, happens to share a car with three white collar fuckboys hitting on an unsuspecting woman by herself. His response? To laugh uncontrollably. This is an unexplained tick that Arthur has, and otherwise the most Joker-ly element about him. When he catches the attention of these Wall Street types–which, even though they’re in Gotham, they are referred to as “Wall Street–” they taunt and beat Arthur, before Joker turns into Death Wish and he guns down his assailants. The film up to this point is decidedly sluggish and clinical, buoyed by Phoenix and a solid look, but the set piece injects much needed energy and thrust into the film.
From there, Arthur, or the guy in the clown mask who taught those scummy suits a lesson, is hailed as a hero. As Arthur’s pent up resentment of the world around him being so punishingly grim begins to unravel, so does the rest of his life. His parentage, his love life (Zazie Beets thanklessly slumming as Arthur’s improbable romantic interest), his already-precarious mental stability. Eventually, footage of Arthur performing at an open mic night leaks, which we’re initially led to believe he kinda kills. When played on the late night talk show of beloved host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro, an undeniably inspired casting choice), we see that Arthur bombed pretty hard, and is made to look ridiculous. From there–with a life that is a lie, a mind that plays tricks on him, and nothing to lose–Arthur is prodded into taking up the mantel of his eponymous supervillain.
As a moviegoing experience, this is an effective, memorable two hours. For every thematic shortcoming–not to mention the film’s blatant disregard for the reality of mental health, as Phillips perpetuates the notion that those who suffer from mental illness are more prone to acts of violence–there is killer production design, some gorgeous photography, and cutting that sneaks up on the audience. Phoenix, as riveting as can be expected from him, takes his Joker just barely to the edge of overacting. His turn is a welcome change from Jared Leto’s portrayal, and earns a seat at the table with Ledger, Hamill, and Nicholson.
One could make the case that this is Phillips’s strongest work as a director yet, and is an almost seamless transition from bro comedy to psychological thriller. Tonally, this is the only comic book adaptation to understand how Christopher Nolan brought an eerie Gotham to life in The Dark Knight, as Phillips applies the aesthetic of a whole movement of filmmaking in the way Nolan is riffing on Michael Mann in his work. Phillips exhibits not only control, and a surprising knack for intricate set pieces, but a genuine vision that slowly but surely guides the film.
In the end, Joker doesn’t commit to any particular statement. We’re ultimately left to decide what is or isn’t real, especially since the film goes to great lengths to let us know that Arthur, whose perspective we’re anchored to for the entirety of the picture, is an unreliable narrator. Being ambiguous for the sake ambiguity can sometimes work in terms of pure plot, so long as the rest of the narrative follows through on a coherent thesis, which is where Joker falters. That inability to take a stand is ultimately what keeps Joker from being great.
For a movie that juggles as much as Joker, the ideas that make up the movie are uniformly unanswered. Is this a cautionary tale? Is this a character study of the criminally insane? Is this a self-reflexive treatise on the inherent politicization of film? Perhaps the point of Joker is how unknowable evil is. Joker doesn’t lack questions. In fact, Phillips is quite good at raising them. Joker might be anything mentioned above, and maybe the goal is to be all of those things, or maybe the film is deliberately withholding. Maybe there is something to the notion that a movie can have a singular identity without adopting any ideology. Whatever that looks like, Joker isn’t that.
While Joker leaves a lot to the imagination, Phillips’s risk to take no chance at all. He gives us the pieces, but there’s nothing to figure out. Anyone who watches Joker can come away with whatever they want. They can see a psychotic nihilist, or they can see a tragic figure who never stood a chance, or they can see this as a studio-bankrolled troll for caring at all about movies. Joker tries to be about everything, and what we’re left with is a film about nothing. Which is a shame, because Joker is a thoroughly compelling work of storytelling. For all the homage and riffing, there’s nothing quite like Joker. The film lingers as an oddity: A maddening missed opportunity that is impossible to totally turn away from.