Todd Phillips channels Martin Scorsese but comes up with a grim imitation with nothing to say
Beautifully shot, competently directed, and featuring a committed lead performance from Joaquin Phoenix, Joker unravels as an unashamed homage to the gritty, urban films of Martin Scorsese like Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy – and nothing else. But why Scorsese? To what narrative ends? Director Todd Phillips, best known for his Hangover movies, doesn’t seem to know. Instead of searching for a reason, he meanders in murky morals and faux philosophising about the terrible state of things, even roping in Robert De Niro – who also played a psychotic, wannabe stand-up in The King of Comedy – to lend his shallow work some weight. But De Niro, star of Dirty Grandpa, isn’t exactly picky, and having him show here doesn’t help to convince you that Phillips is realising a true vision. Joker is all surface.
Joaquin Phoenix plays Arthur Fleck, a mentally disturbed clown-for-hire who’s also prone to uncontrollable laughing fits. He works out of a strange business where he and his fellow clowns come together to shoot the shit, à la Taxi Driver, before heading off to spin signs and entertain sick children. Fleck lives with his mother (Frances Conroy), and is continually beaten down by Gotham City’s unrelenting citizens, taking solace only in the notion of becoming a successful stand-up despite having zero comic talent, and in his single-mom neighbour (Zazie Beetz). Things take a dark turn when budget cuts put an end to Arthur’s meetings with his social worker, setting him on the path to becoming the iconic villain of the title.
As Arthur, Phoenix – hunched and skinny – is very watchable, but the lack of nuance in the script carries over into his performance and leaves him simply repeating himself, falling back on the same tics and line deliveries. I was reminded of Stephen King’s comments on Jack Nicholson’s performance in The Shining when he claimed the film doesn’t work because Nicholson seems crazy right off the bat, undermining the idea of a normal man being pushed to the edge. Arthur Fleck is served up crazy the first time we see him. He basically starts out in the same place that he ends up – he’s just killed a lot more people.
The problem with Phillips’ approach is that Joker never feels like anything but an imitation of a good movie. It has all the elements – an actor physically transformed, a “darker” tone – but never manages to transcend the idea that its director is way out of his depth intellectually. Even the film’s brilliant, ominous musical score by Hildur Guðnadóttir feels overused and overelied upon, whilst scenes that play out with a sense of intended irony are lacking exactly that. It’s such a literal, empty film that it eschews the possibility of any grey areas. Phillips might be trying to say something about mental issues, but he never commits. The entire film is like so: topics are braced but never explored. He might as well be saying, “Mental health, am I right?”
As if having learned nothing from its studio’s history of rushed cinematic universes, Joker – despite purporting to be a one-off – can’t resist planting those franchise seeds, either. This time its intentions feel even more laboured and out of place, though, as almost the entire middle act is dedicated to an uninteresting and contrived subplot involving Arthur’s mother and the Wayne family. There’s also an encounter with young Bruce that, aside from serving no significant purpose other than to tease a sequel, throws up so many timeline-based questions you’re left wondering how it might ever work.
None of these issues would have been so glaringly obvious had Joker been simply and fundamentally entertaining to watch. Instead, it plays out with such an off-putting level of grimness that’s made worse by a story-searching middle section that verges on boring, and a meaningless script that has nowhere to go – especially as so much of the film is merely happening inside our soon-to-be-supervillain’s head. Joker might earn a few points for its nifty production design, solid performances, and some very, very good dancing. Jokes, though? Just one, and it’s on us.
By: Tom Barnard
This post was categorised in Reviews.