Joker, now out in theaters, is a beautifully realized recreation of a bygone cinema age with a key lead performance anchoring the entire production. Unfortunately, all of its merits remain surface level as the storytelling underneath strains under director and co-writer Todd Phillips’s various ambitions. The end result: an overly long, abominably paced comic book inspired film that people will nonetheless be arguing about until Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) smashes the popular perception of the title character.
The plot is almost incidental. Joaquin Phoenix plays Arthur Fleck, a beaten-down, mentally unstable denizen of Gotham City in the early 1980s. And like real life New York of the era, Gotham is choked by garbage strikes, porn theaters, a completely aloof aristocracy, and racial tensions no one wants to admit exist. That atmosphere, brought to the screen by cinematographer Lawrence Sherr and production designer Mark Friedberg is where the film excels. And as some theaters are screening the film in 35mm, the sensation of watching a gritty Warner Bros. crime drama of the 1970s is the most successful aspect of the film. Drawing on the style and techniques of directors like Martin Scorsese and Sidney Lumet, Phillips and his crew vividly recall the decaying New York those filmmakers captured by simply rolling film in the Five Burroughs at the time. With that in mind, you can almost forgive the film as it positions Arthur as a costumed version of the 1984 Subway Shooter Bernie Goetz.
But then you remember the optics.
In the early part of the film, it is hard to ignore that Arthur is a pale face surrounded by people of color wholly uninterested in his condition — he is cursed with uncontrollable laughter among a gamut of other ailments — or giving him any consideration. This, of course, changes when his Goetz moment occurs with a trio of white stock brokers instead of four black youths. But the film nonetheless evokes this moment of real life racial rage thanks to its lavish recreation of New York in rougher times. After that, black and brown faces recede from the film as Arthur’s crime inspires a movement (of people in white clown masks) against Gotham elite like Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) — a limp pastiche of the current president. The movie pivots toward class warfare, but like its discomfort with race, its refusal to commit to a stance on the 1% only obscures the director’s true thoughts on the matter.
Which only makes sense as the movie was produced by an entertainment conglomerate owned by a telecommunications giant.
Now, you might dismiss these concerns because Joker is, after all, a comic book movie. It should be a “frivolous entertainment” like the Marvel movies or Warner Bros’ earlier comic book film from this year, Shazam! But as both director and studio went out of their way to set the film apart as a “gritty character study,” it asks you to consider some sort of social relevance, not unlike Serpico or Taxi Driver. There is an expectation of something more grand than the roller coaster thrills and quips of The Infinity Saga. Its Venice Film Festival win and Toronto International Film Festival acclaim were meant to be signals that Joker was an elevated comic book movie — an attempt to take a children’s character and give it an artistic substance while commenting on the state of the world.
But those are elements of Scorsese and Lumet films Phillips cannot easily recreate. For those filmmakers, the urban blight and societal decay was all around them. While real life Travis Bickles would not start their rampages for almost another decade — with Goetz leading the charge — his character type was molded by the pressures and upheavals of the mid-20th century. And like making a VHS copy of one of those films off of cable television, Joker loses a lot of that immediacy in its attempts to copy the underpinnings of that era. It also fails to make good on the pressures it cribs from modern times. The vaguely Occupy Wall Street social movement Arthur inspires by murdering the stock brokers is as poorly-rendered as Thomas Wayne; it also gets about as much screen time. The impression: Phillips included these ideas just in case they proved a compelling hook to critical opinion. But as these ideas are not at the heart of his film, they feel like window dressing to contemporize his paean to Taxi Driver.
It is an impression one might not get if the film was paced properly. Far too many scenes in Joker refuse to admit they are over. Much as how the 2016 Ghostbusters suffers from a director unwilling to choose a punchline for a scene, Phillips constantly refuses to chose a dramatic end point. As a result, the film features long, drawn out gulfs of nothing. As a viewer, you’re left to contemplate the making of the film instead of the film itself.
That bad pace is a disservice to Phoenix, who offers a strong performance as Arthur Fleck. The character is fully realized and something audiences will no doubt enjoy. But his Joker leaves something to be desired — a misstep we’ll place with Phillips more than Phoenix. Throughout the film, there are glimpses of the real Joker emerging in Phoenix. The actor’s physical transformation for the role made it possible for him to look like a Neal Adams or Jim Aparo drawing in certain shots. Some close-ups offer the grotesque visage seen in some of Jerry Robinson’s renderings or more modern takes by artists like Doug Mahnke. And every so often, there is a scene where Phoenix gets playful. Suddenly, for a brief moment, Joker is there with you in the theater. But as every scene goes on a little too long, the impact of Phoenix’s performance is often blunted.
Ironically enough, Phoenix feels the least like the Joker when he finally puts on the suit and grease paint. It is bizarre sensation to see someone look so right, but feel so off as the Clown Prince of Crime. Augmenting the dissonance: the use of Gary Glitter’s “Rock and Roll Part 2” as the music cue during Arthur’s first appearance in full Joker regalia. Glitter is a known pedophile, so it is unclear what Phillips’s intention was with using the song.
But one thing complete clear about Phillips is his feelings about making comedy in the modern era. He uses Arthur — dressed as the Joker — to expound on a hypothesis the director mistakenly shared with the press just before release. Additionally, all of the comedy presented in the film is intentionally bad. The few successful jokes land because of Robert De Niro’s innate talent.
Oh, yes, other people have speaking roles in the film, but beyond De Niro, they are just props. The criminal underuse of Zazie Beetz in the film should be considered one of the Joker’s greatest blunders. Or, if we want to be less charitable, the clamping down on Beetz’s on-screen presence was an intentional form of cinematic punishment from Phillips.
Or, it could just be what the Joker wants you to think. One hook audiences and commentators will gravitate toward is the Fight Club-esque way aspects of the film simply do not actually occur. It would seemingly honor the character’s Killing Joke proclamation that he cannot remember who he is, but it also comes off as Phillips trying to have it every which way he can. If you like the character study of Arthur Fleck, that’s the film he meant to make. If it’s the repudiation of a sick society, that was the intent. It you like the sly twist on DC Comics characters, that was the plan all along. But just as the recreation of 1970s New York masks a shallow contemplation of modern societal ills, invoking the Joker’s ambiguous origins is another example of Phillips abdicating an artistic intent in the project he is quick to proclaim — both inside and outside of the film — as proper High Art. Art, whether high or low, is made by choices and as far as the storytelling goes, Phillips was disinclined to make any.
It leaves Joker as a film which will be picked apart by critics, fans, and the assembled masked masses on social media. And that might be most faithful Joker-esque move of the entire production.
Joker is in theaters now.