Todd Phillips really wants you to take him seriously. After decades of low brow studio comedies like Old School, Due Date and the Hangover trilogy, Phillips decided enough was enough and hitched his wagon to the white hot superhero genre. But not in the way you might expect. He wanted to make Joker. Since Heath Ledger’s iconic and Oscar-winning turn as the clown prince of crime more than a decade ago in The Dark Knight, the Joker has somewhat languished in the public eye. With Ben Affleck leaving the Batman behind after two wretched movies and Jared Leto successfully leaving a bad taste in everyone’s mouth, the opportunity seemed ripe for a different sort of take on Batman’s archvillain. Enter Phillips, who alongside with co-screenwriter Scott Silver seek to reimagine an origin story for the one villain who has never really had one.
The Joker we find here is Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a down-on-his-luck hired clown and aspiring stand-up comedian with none of the social grace or skill to make either work. Set in a grim and gritty early 1980s New York (whoops, I mean Gotham City) in the midst of a garbage strike, Fleck cares for his mother, Penny (Frances Conroy), and laughs uncontrollably during moments of stress and anxiety. Cuts to the department of mental health He’s been shunned from all walks of life (and that’s before he’s fired for bringing a gun to a gig in order to protect himself), and can only find solace in the glow of the television as it broadcasts a talk show hosted by Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro). All Fleck wants is to be good enough to be a guest on Murray’s show one day. And he’ll do just about anything to make that happen.
Prior to its surprise victory at the Venice Film Festival, this supervillain origin story seemed like a curiosity more than anything. It was undeniably strange to hear that the director of the Starsky and Hutch remake was making a serious R-rated Joker movie starring Joaquin Phoenix of all people. It seems like such an odd choice on the face of things, but Phoenix is such an undeniably talented and relentlessly intense actor that there could be something here with the right material. And Phoenix does what he can, thinning out to a shocking degree (think a slightly less insane version of Christian Bale’s body in The Machinist and using his natural features (the scar on his lip, his messed up left shoulder) to magnify the discomfort you feel just looking at him. And he’s got the laugh down, uncontrolled and choking, often bordering on crying, alienating him from the rest of the world. He’s very much a one man show, with everyone else essentially existing to fuel his simmering rage. As a result, the likes of Conroy and Zazie Beetz (as his neighbor/love interest) are rarely-there sketches more than characters. And De Niro is all wrong for a genial Johnny Carson type, not particularly funny nor gregarious. That’s purposeful, as it piles onto Fleck’s fractured sense of self, but it doesn’t quite work as a performance in its own right. The trailers and marketing material made it out to be a rather blatant cross-section of Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, and that's exactly what it turns out to be. Phillips didn’t hire De Niro for nothing; it’s a clear nod to both of those films. He, alongside a weirdly brusque and confrontational Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) represent the establishment in a way that makes no one want to stand up for the establishment. The movie’s deck is stacked against them, making it tough to swallow the idea that it isn’t a lionization of violent vigilante justice meted out by a deranged killer who’s really just a misunderstood maladjusted loner.
Joker purports to show the story of a decent if meek man pushed off the deep end by an uncaring and morally depraved world, but Arthur Fleck is more pitiable than sympathetic despite the film's clear (well, mostly clear...I think) intention to avoid depicting him as a role model once the blood starts spattering. But all sorts of people will see him as the sort of anti-hero they aspire to be, hitting back at a world that hit them. Phillips doesn’t shy away from that. There’s plenty of material for the darker corners of the psyche (and the internet) to glom onto, and I could easily see JOKER having a long, FIGHT CLUB-esque history of being embraced by the sorts of people it’s purported to lampoon. And Todd Phillips doesn’t have nearly as much talent as Fincher to walk that line with care, making it all the more likely that this Joker will be seen as a hero, especially within the incel community that has been shown to foment violence in the recent past. His recent interviews about abandoning comedy because you’re just not allowed to be funny in a “woke world” serves to underline the rot at the center of JOKER rather nicely. It’s telling that Warner Bros. felt the need to release a statement that the movie doesn’t glorify or promote violence. It’s telling that security was using metal detectors on anyone who attended the advance screening.
The result is exhaustingly and relentlessly grim, the sort of movie that screams its art at you with every meticulously gritty frame, so intent to distance itself as much as possible from the billion dollar Marvel sheen (you could argue that its other major cinematic precursor is A Clockwork Orange). Those movies are for kids. This is the real shit right here. That model can work in fits and starts in its own ways. Christopher Nolan famously turned a Batman movie into Heat with The Dark Knight to universal acclaim, and many praised Logan for its use of comic book characters in aggressively non-comic book ways. But Phillips sees the exercise as the purpose instead of an approach to make a satisfying twist on this pop culture juggernaut. And because of that, some of the highlights of the film, whether it’s Phoenix’s physical commitment to the performance or Hildur Guonadottir’s often haunting score often feel misused, under-served or out of place. Todd Phillips wants to have his comic book cake and eat it too, using Thomas Wayne as his Senator Palantine and make those nods to the future fate of his son, while otherwise actively rejecting the legacy in all other senses. Todd Phillips isn’t a Scorsese for a new age; he’s a pale imitation, all surface and no soul, grinning maniacally as the world around him burns to the ground.