You know when someone tells you a joke they think is brilliant, and you don’t get it, and then they look at you like you’re stupid and unsophisticated because that’s better than admitting their joke makes no sense?
That’s director Todd Phillips, and his ‘brilliant’ joke that we don’t get is JOKER. Need proof of this? It’s exactly how Phillips chooses to end his movie (this is not a spoiler):
JOKER: (sudden maniacal laughter)
PRISON PSYCHATRIST: “What’s so funny?”
JOKER: “I just thought of a joke.”
PRISON PSYCHIATRIST: “Can you tell me?”
JOKER: “You wouldn’t get it.”
No, we don’t get it. We don’t get how a movie about a comic book villain who stabs people in the eyeball can act this pretentious. And can insist it’s a timely commentary on the dangers of ignoring mental health care when it so willingly hands the gun to the mentally ill character and delights in giving him reasons to use it.
Joaquin Phoenix’s performance as Arthur Fleck, aka Joker, is the big sell here, and it is mesmerizing (at one point it looks like his ribcage is trying to escape and go find a calmer torso to settle in, like Christian Bale’s maybe). But from frame one Phoenix has his dial up to 11, so by 20 minutes in he’s exhausted the myriad tics he so famously commits every twisting bone in his body to. His solution is to start pulling different Jokers from our collective memory of the character, using escalating violent acts as milestones, and excuses, for his Joker to shift personality. After his first murder, his previously uber-milquetoast Arthur gets the dismissive swagger of Nicholson’s Joker. Next he possesses the tightly wound control of Ledger’s. A quick dip into Leto’s version (whatever that was) before landing at the effeminate vaudevillian Joker Cesar Romero played in the Batman TV series. It is a clever – and satisfyingly weird – way for an actor to construct a character arc without help from the script, but it takes a different track from the rest of the movie, its virtuoso inventiveness making everything around it pale in comparison.
Once Arthur is completely deranged at the finale, and Joaquin is spent from his effort, Phillips steps in to say “Wait, you still have to deliver my Important Message!”, and a character who has supposedly lost the few marbles he had left, suddenly reels off a clear-headed and precise critique of society’s treatment of the mentally ill. No one buys this, including the audience.
Frances Conroy is here to yet again play ‘terrible mother whose hair is too long for her age’ and the great Zazie Beetz is a woman who can’t be in the movie too much because she’s not supposed to be. You’ll see, and it’s annoying.
Another element thrown in to say this is an important film is Robert DeNiro, but the only part left for him was a night-time TV talk show host a la Johnny Carson. Jovial and deferential is not a DeNiro thing, and the character should have been presented in a different context, say a confrontational talk radio format. But this film constantly chooses style over sense.
There are several iconic visual sequences audiences will walk out remembering, but the stylistic flourishes become overplayed, like the constantly flickering florescent lights, the blood-on-greasepaint motif, the endless intrusion of ironic song choices for Phoenix to twist and shout to.
I don’t see the critique that the movie incites incels (men who’ve been made ‘involuntarily celibate’ because women are demanding respect). I see a director who considers himself the incel. In interviews Phillips blames ‘woke culture’ (Liberal McCarthyism, etc) for his inability to make fratty comedies like The Hangover and Old School anymore. So he’s been forced into a new genre, which he feels he has reinvented in the same way he feels he revolutionized comedy (move over, Christopher Nolan, there’s a new auteur in the comic book movie game!).
When I caught my partner, who typically loves all things comic book related, yawning, I knew my reaction was shared. This is a movie full of style and full of always-fascinating Joaquin Phoenix. It’s just also full of itself.
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