For all the hype, I expected Joker to be completely unhinged, to take its audience to the edge of the cliff, then push them over without mercy.
Instead, quite frankly—and so as not to bury the lede—I found the entire film to be an incredible letdown, with a terribly predictable storyline that was neither interesting or particularly engaging.
And the fact that it was nominated for Best Picture (in addition to leading the Academy Award nominations, with 11 total) both baffles me and makes perfect sense.
So, a quick synopsis: Arthur Fleck, an aspiring stand-up comedian and part-time clown, suffers from a disorder that causes him to laugh at inopportune times. He meets periodically with a city-funded counselor as a prerequisite for getting medication, but tends to blow off the meetings as unhelpful. An altercation on the subway one night results in Arthur shooting and killing three thugs. He flees the scene, still wearing his clown costume. After Gotham’s mayor, Thomas Wayne (Bruce Wayne’s father) condemns the murders, calling anyone jealous of the wealthy “clowns.” This indictment ignites a series of protest across Gotham, with protesters wearing clown masks similar to Arthur’s.
⚠️ Spoilers ahead ⚠️ With the government counseling program shuttered—and thus Arthur’s access to his medication cut off—he becomes increasingly unbalanced, eventually killing his mother. One of his comedy clips goes viral, resulting in an invitation to appear on a late-night talk show, where he insists on being introduced as “Joker.” The interview devolves into Arthur ranting and culminates with him killing the talk show host on live television, while the city dissolved into chaos. ⚠️ /spoilers ⚠️
Ultimately, I felt Joker suffered from an ill-defined purpose. Is the goal to bring light to mental illness? To serve as a rallying cry for standing up to corruption? To discuss how the masses often co-opt imagery without first considering where it comes from? To glorify random violence?
And yet, by choosing to make Arthur Fleck’s Joker the symbol of protesting against corruption, director Todd Phillips inadvertently—or perhaps, advertently—positions (the) Joker on the same side of the fight as his future nemesis, Batman. It’s an interesting choice, and though the two aren’t meant to be connected, I couldn’t help but think of the question raised in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight: how evil do good men have to become to combat greater evil?
Lacking the subtlety of Heath Ledger’s Joker, Joaquin Phoenix’s interpretation of the character struck me as stereotypical, relying too much on a gaunt figure to make any real impact. And Todd Phillips’ directorial style can pretty much be summed up by, “if in doubt, show him laughing,” which got very told very quickly.
When the film was announced, I was worried that giving the Joker a backstory would strip away his power. While I’m not a Batman aficionado, I appreciate a good villain when I see one, and the Joker’s lack of backstory is what made him compelling. Unlike any other villain, we didn’t have even the slightest reason to like him; his cold, ruthless, seemingly-motherless existence became, in a way, the personification of evil.
And now, weak though it is, we have at least one interpretation of why it is, which sucks away what made the Joker such a great villain in the first place, and reduces him to the status of a mortal, which is far less frightening.
I recently heard someone ask the question, “is it helpful?” and I haven’t been able to shake it since. I’ve found this question running through my mind on at least a daily basis, and it was the first thing that came to mind when the credits rolled.
For all its missteps and faults, perhaps the question we should be asking ourselves is not, is Joker a good movie, but rather, is it helpful? In 2019, on the cusp of 2020 and a (debatable) new decade, does the release of such a movie—one that seeks to elevate a troubled man to the status of a hero, without properly wrestling with the violence and havoc he wreaks, both inadvertently and intentionally—serve to elevate public discourse?
And here again, I think it falls short.