Director: Todd Phillips
Writers: Todd Phillips & Scott Silver
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Frances Conroy
Failed comedian and mentally ill Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) is mistreated and disregarded by the brutal and unforgiving people of Gotham City, and so begins a descent into madness and a downward spiral of violent crime that leads him to fight back and become known as ‘Joker’.
Whatever anyone makes of Joker, there is certainly no denying that it has caused quite a global reaction and discussion (as well as make a lot of money), and if a film gets people talking then that must mean it is doing something right? Maybe, but only if that is actually justified and the film in question is worth lengthy discussion and debate. Well, for me Joker is not a film worthy of this because it simply does not have enough genuine substance, nor is it in any way thought provoking or shocking enough to merit any kind of lengthy discussion, and most certainly not any of the headlines it has been producing. Joker does not do justice to its supposed protagonist and his legacy as being regarded as the most well-known and distinctive comic book villain of all time. In fact, its links to the DC universe and the character of ‘the joker’ (some tenuous, and some quite jarring and cynically placed within the narrative) could well be just a cynical piece of marketing to get bums on seats, which admittedly has worked.
Joker could easily be yet another film with the very tried and tested narrative about an individual pushed to the brink of insanity by a cruel and unforgiving world that alienates them, but throwing in a few links to the DC Universe will inevitably lead to a lot more people seeing it, especially as it is supposedly about one its most iconic characters. Maybe I am doing a great injustice to Todd Phillips and Scott Silver, but in a film that seems to have a cynical view of the world, I am sure that is not the only cynical angle!
Todd Phillips has certainly come a long way as a filmmaker since Road Trip, Old School and The Hangover, and he is certainly trying to prove to the world that he can make mature films with substance. Well, the obvious influences of this film (Taxi Driver, King of Comedy etc) have been discussed at length, and that is probably because they are so obvious. There is no denying that Phillips puts together a film that very effectively creates the moody atmosphere and introspective tone of a lot of 70s films; we can very much feel the angst, paranoia and tension on the streets of New York (sorry, I mean Gotham) within every scene, and that it is an unforgiving and brutal society where the divide between the haves and the have-nots is getting bigger, and the underclasses are crying out for a spark that will light the flame of a brutal rebellion (oh, this all sounds very clichéd!).
The aesthetics of the film are fantastic; the set design has wonderful attention to detail, with every scene (whether exterior or interior) capturing the grottiness of the city and the loneliness, isolation and desperation that exists. This is further complimented by Lawrence Sher’s wonderful cinematography and Hildur Guðnadóttir’s effectively brooding score that has intense feelings of dread in every note that is played.
However, for me that is the main problem with Joker; it is all surface and no substance. The story is a generic, seen-it-all-before descent into madness that has been many times before (but far more effectively) and watching Joker just makes you want to go and watch these films. Phillips should be careful just how much he pays homage to other films, as Joker just serves as a further reminder to just how much better these other films are and just how lacking in substance Joker actually is.
This is all actually very disappointing, as there is so much potential for Joker to go to some very dark places and provide a truly scathing and cathartic analysis of just how cruel, brutal and unforgiving both the world and the people in it can be, and the fact that there are a lot of very lonely people out there who feel that they have nothing to lose. However, Joker just skirts around this and seems too afraid to actually take any risks. Yes, there are a couple of scenes that feature violence that could be described as brutal in the context of the fact that these scenes appear in a ‘mainstream’ film compared to the very safe fantasy violence of most recent comic book films where no one seems to bleed (or actually die!), but there really is nothing shocking (or indeed memorable) about this film in the slightest. Stories of people walking out of cinemas (if they are even actually true) just add hype to a film that does not deserve it; Joker is a film relies on painfully generic clichés and the only thing memorable about it is that it will make you want to watch again the vastly superior films of which it draws (a lot) of influence from.
Another element of Joker that has certainly been discussed at length is the performance of Joaquin Phoenix, and though it is not in my opinion his very best, it is undoubtedly a very committed and physical performance that allows us to understand (but not of course encourage or justify) his actions, and it is his performance that certainly often elevates the very generic material. Thanks to Phoenix we do care about our protagonist and do truly want him to change course from the very dark path that he is taking. Of course, at no point in the narrative does he quite become the criminal mastermind that we know as ‘the joker’ and neither should he, as (despite a the Wayne family featuring within the narrative) this is very much a standalone film, and it must stay that way otherwise it will instantly lose the integrity it does have.
There can certainly be many interpretations made of the film’s simplistic and clichéd plot; one being that a man with a mental illness stops taking his pills, and so flips out and kills people. I hope that Phillips is trying to avoid such a stereotypical story, but if stripped down, that is what does happen in the narrative. There is certainly an argument to be put forward that Joker’s depiction of mental illness is extremely lazy and unhelpful, and this is once again down to the indolent and generic plotting.
To say that Joker is predictable may seem like an obvious and lazy criticism as we all know what is going to happen to its slightly famous protagonist, but all the plot devices that supposedly trigger his descent are way too obvious and clichéd to produce any kind of story that is at least gripping. We all know that the world can be a cruel, unforgiving and lonely place, and humans (even the ones held in high regard) are capable of being cruel, cold and brutal. We also know that this can produce people to rise up and rebel. However, it does feel that Joker assumes that the viewer is stupid, naive and not aware of such obvious facts, and due to the performances and visuals Joker is watchable and entertaining, but it is very generic and highly forgettable – which truly is a shame and waste!
It seems that never before has a film so generic and forgettable created such undeserved media attention and controversy; Joker is a watchable, but highly forgettable viewing experience, and that is quite literally it – now go and watch Taxi Driver again!