Written by Todd Phillips & Scott Silver
Directed by Todd Phillips
We are incapable of having a nuanced conversation about anything in popular culture. As I scroll through endless hot takes on Warner Bros.’ latest DC Comics property turned movie Joker, I find myself getting numbingly-exhausted. Apparently, Joker is either A) a clarion call to Trump-loving incels or B) the most magnificent piece of cinema ever produced, so we should end filmmaking now. Joker is a beautiful, ugly, well-acted, terribly-written, film that says so much while being so profoundly shallow and on the nose. This is going to be a long review and go into a lot of detail, much of which will involve me rambling about things you may find tangentially unconnected from Joker, but this is my review so…nyah.
Authorial intent and interpretation are entirely uninteresting to me. I recently was having a conversation during dinner with an acquaintance about Ari Aster’s horror film Hereditary. I brought up the review by May Leitz, where she interprets a subtext about the guilt of a mother who rejected her trans son and destroyed her family in the process. My acquaintance was listening but then asked, “Well, is that what the director was doing?” I was befuddled and said, “Well, no, but I find that to be a fascinating perspective on a movie I love.” He went to say that he thinks only the author’s intended meaning matters, and everything else is fluff. My personal beliefs around this matter are that if you adhere only to the author’s intent, then you have authoritarian leanings, and if you are someone like me who loves to deep dive into all the ways a piece of media can be seen, then you’re more egalitarian. Some times, as in the case of Joker, the “author” is a dumbass, and a layperson’s interpretation can be way more interesting.
Let’s go over the basics of Joker and then get into my first thoughts and takeaways, the rabbit hole that my mind has become. Arthur Fleck works as a clown getting shoddy gigs. He’s profoundly mentally ill, but the medication and check-ins with his therapist don’t seem to add up to much. After a series of horrible emotional and physical beatdowns, Arthur unleashes his rage and finds he has no guilt or remorse. He suddenly feels a sense of power and existence, which leads him to continue down this dark path. Ultimately, Arthur becomes Joker and debuts in a public and violent manner setting the stage for his eventual conflict with Batman, which we do not see in this film.
When the screen went black, my first few thoughts were, “That is the most depressing mainstream studio movie I’ve seen in a long time” and “Poor Joaquin Phoenix, he had to carry that whole movie on his bony back.” Throughout the movie, I kept thinking, “How are they going to end this? I can’t see any type of a light-hearted note,” and sure enough, Joker ends plummeting into a thematically bleak place. That said, this is not a dangerous movie that actually pushes forward any actual ideology. That’s why I find the loud back and forth shouting in the internet space to be so pointless and exhausting. Todd Phillips is not intellectually capable enough to deliver a film with the intended levels of meaning or ties to an ideology that so many people seem to think this picture possess. Joker, the movie, much like Joker, the character, is a total cop-out on actually making a statement about anything. What Phillips has actually made is the most thud-like centrist garbage that a Hollywood studio could produce. This is edgy in the way Hot Topic is punk.
Joker, in the film’s third act, suddenly states that he believes in nothing, distancing himself from the clown protests that he inadvertently kicked off when he shoots three stockbroker bros. However, we see him milling around these angry crowds, grinning. He takes pleasure in the fear he’s invoked. Of the murders Arthur commits, every single one is motivated out of harm that has been done to him. He kills the stockbroker bros because they assault him on the train, he kills his mom because Arthur finds out she abused him as a child, he kills his co-worker because he’s responsible for Arthur losing his job, and he kills the talk show host because he humiliated Arthur on air. So when Joker tries to claim he has no ideology, every single action he’s done during the movie contrasts with that. Joker does believe in how he is seen by others; he doesn’t like being humiliated; therefore, he’s lying in his odiously-written speech. I actually felt sorry for Phoenix having to deliver those hammer blow obvious lines, the character suddenly being made to speak with a level of articulation that we hadn’t seen once before in the film.
Phillips spends so much time creating an argument as to why Arthur Fleck will become Joker and then drops the ball in the third act. There are topics touched on that could be really interesting, but the ultimate decision to go soft and just be a dumb comic book movie is so disappointing. There is a scene where Arthur learns he will no longer be able to receive counseling and medication because of government cuts to social programs is something that happened in the 1980s, done by the Reagan administration that did lots of harm to the mentally ill. I appreciated the line where his therapist starkly says, “They don’t care about you, and they don’t care about me.” I’m a teacher who has seen the way our mental health system and social services have been defunded to the point that they have become ineffective. It’s why I am a passionate supporter of Universal Healthcare free on the point of delivery that includes comprehensive mental health treatment and therapy. I doubt Phillips intended this to be a talking point for his audience, but that’s why authorial intent doesn’t matter.
There is a very obvious throughline to be made around the raging, fighting crowds of Joker supporters and the loud minority of people that partake in Trump’s cult of personality. I am no fan of Donald Trump’s, but I think there are more exciting and nuanced takes that could be made on the idea. My own perspective is that Thomas Wayne is a dual character, representing both the dispassionate neoliberals that brought us Trump and Trump himself, a wealthy man who doesn’t care about the harm he does to the vulnerable. Is there one ultimate correct interpretation of all of this? Nope. But I also don’t need a piece of corporate media to set my moral compass for me. The film Joker never really says anything but nudges against ideas that could be explored.
Joaquin Phoenix is fantastic but has the problem of being the only character in the film who actually matters to the plot. Every other character exists as a plot device to push the story of Arthur Fleck forward. His love interest is only there to serve as an example of his deteriorating mental state. His mother is there just so we can have a second act twist about Thomas Wayne and someone to blame for Arthur’s mental condition. Every single supporting character amounts to nothing. The script just doesn’t have enough interesting things for Phoenix to do so we can see him stretching out the material placed in his hand. There is silly talk about an Oscar, but he would deserve one for carrying the picture despite the mediocrity of the director at the helm.
The movie looks great and sounds great, but technical achievements aren’t as much an achievement as people think. I do not doubt for a second that Phillips put a lot of time and care into making Joker, you can see it on the screen. It’s easy to do brilliant cinematography when you have the resources of Warner Bros. at your disposal. What’s hard is crafting a nuanced story that has something to say about cultural icons. I’m in the camp that within the fictional world of Gotham City, both The Joker and Batman are harmful to the citizen’s well-being. They both project different shades of toxic masculinity that harm vulnerable people, and it’s hard to say that anything Batman has done has made Gotham a better place.
One thing to keep in mind is that nothing in this movie is definitive in any way about the characters. In the same way, we’ve had dozens of interpretations of Sherlock Holmes or Tarzan, so too is this just one possible angle of looking at these characters. It cribs volumes from the work of Martin Scorsese (see The King of Comedy and Taxi Driver) but does not possess the talent and craft of that director’s work. This picture could have said so much, but Todd Phillips doesn’t know how to make a movie that can do that. He’s shown in Joker that, outside of dumb frat bro comedies, he just mimics other, better films. Speaking of which, review of The King of Comedy incoming…