Arts movie review

‘Joker’ is a tragedy without a punchline

Todd Phillips’s carefully crafted character study compromises on its own message

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Joaquin Phoenix stars in 'Joker.'
Courtesy of Niko Tavernise

Directed by Todd Phillips
Screenplay by Todd Phillips and Scott Silver
Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy
Rated R, Now Playing

All it takes is one bad day for a man to teeter off the edge into full-blown lunacy. At least, that’s how the story used to go after Alan Moore immortalized the DC Universe’s most iconic supervillain in his much-acclaimed masterpiece The Killing Joke. But director Todd Phillips isn’t interested in paying homage to Moore, or to any comic book writer, for that matter. There are no acid vats or caped crusaders in his reimagining of the Joker’s origin story, and his central subject is more Travis Bickle than criminal mastermind. Phillips’ film exists in its own universe, one in which insanity is the natural byproduct of a systemically broken society.

In Joker, we see the world through the eyes of Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), an aspiring standup comedian in the sordid underbelly of Gotham whose life is a long series of cruel jokes and clichés. He’s thirty-something years old but still lives at home with his overbearing mother. He works as a party clown for hire, but his attempts to play peek-a-boo with a toddler on the bus feel more terrifying than amusing. When he tries to talk about how alienated and alone he feels, his own therapist can’t bear to listen to him. In perhaps the cruelest twist of them all, a childhood brain injury compels Arthur to break out into hysterical laughter during moments of intense anxiety or grief. Like his disability, Arthur’s whole existence can be read as one decidedly unhumorous non sequitur: something that doesn’t quite follow or fit in with the world around him.

Phoenix turns in a brilliant performance as Arthur, immersing himself fully into a character who is at once sympathetic and deeply disturbing. Much has been made of how Phoenix lost more than 50 pounds for the role. His emaciated body, together with the way his facial expressions and movements seem painstakingly choreographed and yet also restrained, paint a portrait of a man who exists as much inside his own head as in the outside world. That’s crucial for a film where everything we experience is mediated by the increasingly unhinged perspective of Arthur, who copes with the disappointments of reality by conjuring elaborate fantasies. 

Unfortunately, Joker is too interested in being a one-dimensional character study to give Phoenix’s performance any real legs to stand on. For a film purportedly about the origins of the Joker character, Arthur’s descent into violent madness is astonishingly swift. The script refuses to probe Arthur’s emotional state after each crime he commits, giving little narrative explanation for why he continues to escalate the stakes. Instead, all we get are repeated reminders that “it’s crazy out there,” as if the socioeconomic tensions brewing in Gotham are enough to justify how suddenly Arthur (and the 99 percent alongside him) embrace the total chaos of anarchy. 

“You were the only person who was ever nice to me,” Arthur says to a midget co-worker in a rare moment of mercy. The scene, professing to add a layer of depth and humanity to the Joker during his maniacal descent, rings hollow, perhaps because the midget has appeared in the film for a grand total of ten seconds until this moment. By grossly underdeveloping the supporting characters, the film keeps the audience at bay, preventing us from genuinely identifying with Arthur.

Phillips’ solution to these plot holes is to inveterately point the camera in Arthur’s direction and let Phoenix’s acting do all the work. His liberal use of claustrophobically extended closeups to visualize Arthur’s inner demons feels heavy-handed to the point of being self-indulgent. It’s clear that Phillips, best known for his profane comedies ranging from Old School and Borat to The Hangover trilogy, is uncomfortably out of place in the drama genre. The few moments where Phillips lets himself enter unadulterated dark comedy — for instance, when Arthur misplaces a prop while performing at a children’s hospital, or when a door lock is just out of reach of the aforementioned midget’s grasp — are easily among the film’s best. But such scenes are too few and far between to redeem a story that consistently prioritizes tone and mood over a well-developed, interesting narrative.

That’s not to say that there isn’t any value to the film’s aesthetics. On the whole, the shot composition feels incredibly beautiful, especially in the establishing scenes of Gotham in all of its trash-filled, rat-infested splendor. The camerawork is downright gorgeous at times; consider the way the camera suddenly tilts each time Arthur trudges up the long staircase of stone steps that lead to his neighborhood, producing an illusion that suggests the only place for the Joker to go is straight down. Or how, when Arthur finally gets his shot to perform a standup routine at the comedy club he frequents, even the camera cringes at his jokes, spinning away from Arthur and drowning out his voice with non-diegetic music that heeds no internal filmic logic. And the film’s use of color — in the form of the bright reds and yellows of Arthur’s costume — to distinguish the figure of the Joker from the bleached gray palette of his surrounding environs is brilliant, subtly revealing how Arthur feels trapped in the body of a clown even when he’s not hiding behind a mask or red nose. 

But all this begs the question: should a film about ideas as unsettling and troubling as mental illness and the trauma of childhood abuse really be so beautiful? And therein lies the biggest failing of Joker, a film that unabashedly elevates its own aesthetics over any attempts at thematic coherence. Phillips spends so much of the first half attempting to paint Arthur with painstaking strokes of sympathy and humanity that when he does finally unleash his campaign of bloodthirsty vengeance, we no longer have any idea what to feel. Should we sympathize with this outcast of society who can no longer bear to be discarded or trodden on like just another fleck of refuse? Should we applaud Arthur’s efforts to lash out at a world that stripped him of any individual agency? Or should we, knowing full well all the ramifications of Arthur’s transformation into the Joker, be frightened for a city that is about to find itself under siege? The self-professed beauty of Joker and the horror of its content are irrevocably at odds by the end, culminating in a bizarre final scene that makes it hard to not read the entire thing as a call to anarchy. In short, the politics of the film are at best muddled, and at worst incendiary.

The question that audiences will have to answer for themselves is whether the Joker really needs an origin story. Part of what made Heath Ledger’s performance in The Dark Knight — still, in my mind, the definitive portrayal of the larger-than-life villain — so compelling is that he came from no place and had no human face beneath the clown makeup. His charisma and appeal as the ultimate foe to the Batman was not conditioned by any sympathetic backstory; each time he gave a different explanation for the scars on his face, it functioned to add to his aura of mystery rather than detract from the logic of his existence. He was less a person and more the pure signifier of chaos itself. Fans who left The Dark Knight hoping to learn more about the twists and turns that lead a sane man to become a psychotic clown should certainly take a trip to watch Joker in theaters. Just don’t expect to find any method to the film’s madness.