l know I’m six months late to the party on this one, but I finally saw Joker on Amazon Prime. Pulled out the wallet and rented it cuz I had nothing better to watch. And even if there was something I gave a fig about seeing in the theaters, you couldn’t drag me to one of those superflu incubators.
I probably will never go to the movies again.
I don’t know how I’m going to get my haircut. I’ve got 80s newscaster hair that won’t quit.
But before the plague, what kept me away from Joker?
I just didn’t trust director Todd Phillips and what was presented in the trailers.
Going back to my first thoughts on the trailer — way back in the carefree, pre-apocalyptic days of 2019. April 3rd, to be exact, here’s what I wrote:
I’m a firm believer in the notion that comic books should be kind of fun. They’re escapism. If you have a movie about a loser who is bullied and then kills people, which the previews seem to promise… uh… why then we can just pick up a newspaper. I’m also a semi-believer in the idea that films about villains on their own are boring.
And for the most part, I was right. At least on an artistic level.
Except the thing is… it made 1.1 billion dollars worldwide.
So clearly, my gut instincts were for me and my tastes alone.
Like Joker himself, what makes me different?
Firstly, I have major problems with this movie that all stem from Todd Phillips being the blank JJ Abrams style copycat that he is.
Who else would follow up a fluke box office sensation like The Hangover with a beat-for-beat rehash sequel? And then another one? Then go all deep n’ shit by simply xeroxing the one of the classics, Taxi Driver and my #8 (or thereabouts) favorite film of all time, King of Comedy.
But I’ll get into that later. For now, I want to discuss the strength of the film and that lies solely at the feet of Joaquin Phoenix.
I’ve been hip to his acting prowess since The Master. As in, he’s not just breathing the rarefied air on the top of Mt. Actor with Daniel Day Lewis, he’s possibly even better. In case you’re wondering, the top three these days are Mr. Phoenix, DDL, and Josh Brolin.
But I figured even he, of “You’re all selfish, sinful MILK-DRINKERS!” fame, was susceptible to just collecting a paycheck. I mean you see Michelle Williams in Venom and you think, “Embarrassing. Grotesque. But…whaddya gonna do? She’s got kids to put through college.”
And I assumed that his Oscar win was akin to Pacino’s Scent of A Woman “Hoohah!” farce or Scorsese’s Departed sham. Just a little pat on the head for past good deeds.
But that skinny little sonuvagun was brilliant. Shockingly great. I just didn’t expect it.
Of course, I knew he was wholly capable of it, but I didn’t think he’d have to dig very deep in a comic book adaptation. Why would he have to?
No one would begrudge him a phone-in job on a weak script, but apparently that’s not Joaquin Phoenix. Skinny to a fault, dancing like no other Joker danced before, even without Prince, brimming with pathos and seething anger.
Except, the core of his character was all wrong.
That’s what makes his performance all that more amazing.
He was so great carrying both a big nothing of a movie and a cipher of a character.
Now you can argue, and I’d have to agree, that this is a different take on The Joker and that it can be refreshing to break with canon and tell a story from a different angle.
But I don’t think it was refreshing. I think it was frustrating. There was no need to relate to this character on a personal level except in the same way we understand The Hulk. Hulk smashes things. Joker likes setting the world on fire.
As Chris Nolan pointed out in The Dark Knight, Joker is a symptom.
His nemesis is us, society.
And Joker’s deal is it’s fun to watch shit blow up.
But Dark Knight was Pee Wee’s Big Adventure in comparison.
This Was A Downer
Arthur Fleck as portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix is nothing but a victim. And he plays no part in his rise to crime. No real choices were made. At least no choice that I would expect of the nihilistic Joker. But this film says he’s a whipped puppy? And then outright angry murderer?
Case in point, he kills his Mom when he finds out she lied to him.
That is not Joker.
What I know of and assume about Joker is that he would find his mother’s lies amusing and then kills Dear Old Mother for talking too loudly or boring him with a shopping list or any other petty, random Emperor Caligula-style misgiving.
He loves her and feels betrayed by her?
That’s kindergarten crap to the Joker. Where was the “dog chasing cars” joy in the absurdity of it all?
There’s no irony in this film. Zero.
It Also Has No Point Of View
Or the problem is maybe Joaquin went so far into a tragic viewpoint that Todd Phillips didn’t know how to dig him out of it. But I never got the sense that Arthur Fleck had Joker in him. Any more than whats-his-face Jake Lloyd was going to grow up to be Darth Vader.
Arthur Fleck is a mentally imbalanced shitheel. I don’t see a leader in him. Joker, as I and everyone else in the world saw it until this movie, attracts followers because of his unadulterated belief in himself.
In King of Comedy, Rupert Pupkin believes in himself to the exclusion of reality, so he’s scary but also a kind of a hero. And by the end, from his point of view, he’s earned his fame, his stripes, so to speak.
Same deal with Travis Bickle. We may gasp in shock now at Travis’ angry looks toward black people and diatribes to Senator Palantine about “the trash on the streets” in Taxi Driver, but Scorsese was exploring and exploiting a nations’ subconscious fears – during a glorious time in cinema where liberal filmmakers did such things in a truthful, organic manner.
And the fact that Travis ends up a hero, free to go on another rampage, was Scorsese & Schrader’s joke on us. The psycho murderer was considered the moral one, the defender of the public based on said public’s backwardly rigid perception of right and wrong.
I will argue with any critic who believes that both the endings to Taxi Driver and King of Comedy were fantasies of the characters.
Roger Ebert held that view and I think it cheapens the message of the movies and lets humanity off the hook.
Much like Deckard being a replicant in Blade Runner, it’s a cop-out.
And that leads me back to Todd Phillips.
Taking the view that it’s all a fantasy is a total non-commitment. Granted, there’s plenty of evidence in the Joker’s comic and film backstory to say that he’s an unreliable witness to his own story.
I can appreciate Nolan’s/Heath Ledger’s Joker telling us we can’t believe what happened to him to make him the way he is, but for the filmmaker to say, “Oh, it’s all in his head” is no different than saying, “It was all a dream!”
And the dream was so scattershot. Every time it threatened to get interesting, Phillips threw out the relevance.
Joker is Batman’s poor half-brother?!
That’s kind of cool. It feeds the idea of the two being flip sides on the same costumed album of anarchy and order. Poverty and Privilege. Vengeance and Justice.
Oh, no. Didn’t happen. Just in his Mom’s head. Or his head. Who knows?
And then the big reason for the backlash against the film. Joker becomes the figurehead of a movement of angry white clown men.
This is my big problem with the film. By definition, Joker shouldn’t rail. He just wants the world to burn. Why? Who cares?
But his followers still need a reason to follow him, even if they’re nihilists.
What were the clowns forming rallies against?
From what I could tell, Fleck desperately kills the “Wall Street Brahs” out of pitiful, whipped-dog, self-defense and it becomes some sort of amorphous, omnipresent clown movement against white privilege?
In real life in New York in the 80s, the citizens rallied around twitchy, nerdy white subway shooter Bernhard Goetz because they felt the black muggers he shot had it coming to them.
There was ardent defense and there were cries of racism back then, too.
Tackle that idea, Phillips, you big Oscar-nominated director, you. Important filmmaking, that’s your gig now, Mr. Hangover.
Men in 1981 wouldn’t think rich white brokers, dumb preppie assholes they may be, deserved to die. What freaking revisionist, anachronistic bullshit are you slinging, Phillips?!
“Oh, but it’s 80s’ Gotham! Not New York!” you say.
Then why set it specifically in 1981? Why make it look just like 80s’ New York? Was this your nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake? Like Stranger Things?
It’s akin to one of those TV shows like 24 where all the real bad guy terrorists are in the CIA, The White House or are white and college-educated with British accents or Nazis. Just because the creatives are too scared to make it about Saudi, Palestinian or Sudanese terrorists of the barbaric, kill-3,000-people-in-a-suicide-attack variety.
If you are going to steal outright from Taxi Driver while kidding yourself that there are real issues at play, then why not have him assassinate – or at least attempt to assassinate – a politician in the Bernie Sanders vein? Have his heartbroken — or not — by a big phony Mary Sue, like Cybil Shepherd in Taxi Driver, in love with a bullshit political ideal.
Make it about something tangible! A war of ideas with Joker in the middle pouring gas on the flames.
Then if Joker notices what a rise he gets out of fucking shit up, he makes a habit of it. That to me is The Joker.
But Not This Film
This film was all abstract and well-worn ideas with no connective tissue– with an admittedly awesome performance — that’s it.
Yet everyone on both sides was claiming Joker as reflective of our current society.
The film is reflective of our society in the way JJ Abrams films are: it’s all homage, nostalgia and plagiarism without a shred of actual depth or meaning.
When I think of films these days, especially sequels, reboots and remakes, I always think of Spock’s Humpback Whale Hypothesis in Star Trek IV.
That’s Nu-Hollywood. That’s JJ. Abrams. That’s Todd Phillips. That’s the Joker movie.
That’s us now.
Copying Isn’t Creating
Just because you hire a sleepwalking and horribly miscast Robert DeNiro in the Jerry Langford role and cast a Peter Boyle look-a-like as a fellow clown in your 1980s’ NY Cabbie Clown locker room (???) — doesn’t mean you’ve made a lasting and true work of art like Taxi Driver and King of Comedy.
Joaquin saved it from being outright terrible or worthless, but every story beat that moved the plot along was pure hogwash.
- The gun being dropped on Arthur’s lap. Hogwash. He doesn’t even buy it. Again, no choices being made.
- He brings the gun to a Children’s Hospital Cancer Ward. Hogwash. He doesn’t do it as THE JOKER. He does it as stupid, mentally stunted and scared Arthur Fleck. Even in 1981, that would be retarded.
- Murray Franklin picking Arthur to be on the show. Pure hogwash. Even today with social media fails and whatnot, that came out of nowhere as a plot device. Mr. Phillips, there was no social media in 1981. No one would get a laugh out of a failed comedy routine. Comedians fail all the time, some even laugh at their own jokes, and no one likes watching it.
- A terrific, sickeningly embarrassing scene by Mr. Phoenix was simply ruined by the fact that interest in it just flat out wouldn’t happen. Not legally. Not for entertainment. Not ever.
- Murray Franklin being murdered. That triggers the clowns? Why? Did Murray represent the Wall Street Meatheads? And worst of all, the clown mob rescues Joker. He doesn’t lead them in any way. No call to action. It just happens.
Add to that, Murry and the producer are obnoxious boneheads in the worst, most writerly way.
They would’ve cut to a commercial long before Arthur pulled out the gun. Again, Arthur wouldn’t have made it past one minute of viewing the initial illegally obtained audition tape.
There’s any way to write the scene of Murray being assassinated for the world to see.
Todd Phillips picked the laziest, most contrived way possible
As presented, Arthur would simply be a psycho, murdering a talk-show host. Who would rally around him?
There’s no irony in Franklin’s murder. It’s just a senseless killing. King of Comedy and Taxi Driver are brimming with irony. How could the director not see that?
In a way, Phillips is worse than JJ Abrams, because at least the Academy ignores JJ and his 7th-grade “whiz kid” writer-boy contrivances and plagiarisms.
Now Mr. Phillips is an important director. And for what? A Batman movie he built on the shoulders of my favorite Scorsese movies.
And furthermore, the scenes that felt like Scorsese rip-offs were so specifically gritty that any time a DC element came into the picture like Thomas Wayne or Arkham Asylum, it completely threw me out of the film.
I kept thinking, “Oh right. This is supposed to tie in with Batman.”
And damn-it-to heck, if I have to see Martha Wayne’s pearls fall in super slo-mo one more on film… I’m giving up Batman for good.
If I never see another film again, either because we’re going to be wiped out Captain Tripps style, or more likely because I’m just so utterly fatigued with this generation of filmmakers with their Jokers and Shazams and Birds of Prey, at the very least can latch onto the fact that once upon in a time, chiefly in the 70s and 80s filmmakers used to produce cinema that contained truths about our existence.
I put in the Blu Ray of Taxi Driver after watching Joker with my teenaged son. I made him watch it and pointed out what the scenes meant in relation to 1976 society at large. And how they are still relevant today.
I suppose if Joker made me do that, I have to grudgingly say it was worth a look.