🤡 The Tears of a Clown...
The Crime: Joker
The Guilty Party: Todd Phillips
Overview: Phillips leans heavily on the visual language of Martin Scorsese to tell a gritty urban origin story that's dumb and has nothing worthwhile to say but somehow managed to resonate with emotionally-stunted man-babies so we will literally never hear the end of it.
Why I Hate It...
Over the course of this year's blog series we're going to see a mix of things that are objectively bad and other things that just bothered me personally, and I'm going to do my best to spread the love around in that regard. So with that in mind...
Joker is a bad movie and you're a bad person for liking it.
Joker tells the story of Arthur Fleck, a failure of a comedian and a clown who's suffering from some sort of mental illness and dealing with an ailing mother. Over the course of the movie he becomes a murderer, and then a folk hero, and then kills a talk show host on live TV and is ultimately arrested and sent to a mental institute where he is destined to become the most iconic and charismatic rogue in Batman's entire rogue's gallery.
Quick question for you. Why does this movie exist? There will never be a performance of the Joker that tops either Heath Ledger or Mark Hamill, so why this sad-sack origin story? It starts down the path of social commentary but gets wildly derailed (and believe me, we're going to circle back to that). It doesn't fit any of the existing film continuities--which is fine, but it does mean the film needs to have its own purpose. If you're going to throw continuity out the window, you need to at least have something to say. It gives us yet another depiction of Thomas and Martha Wayne's death, because any film that is in any way Batman-adjacent needs to tick that box, I guess.
But why an origin story? The Joker is one of those villains like Hannibal Lecter who are the embodiment of a certain type of evil and they get less interesting the more you know about them. It's a bad idea here just like it was a bad idea in The Killing Joke--which this story is borrowing heavily from and which is also really bad, actually. Christopher Nolan understood this. That's why his Joker kept making up new backstories for himself; the farther you got into his psyche the less cohesive it became. But turning the enigmatic anarchist Joker into a mental patient with revenge fantasies is a disservice to both the character and to real people with mental health struggles (and real people with revenge fantasies).
From a storytelling perspective, this movie makes no goddamn sense. The bare-bones mechanics of setting and character journey are either so muddled as to be nonsensical or so glaringly obvious that you just get bludgeoned with them. There are multiple instances in this movie of Arthur being literally kicked when he's down. Get it? They're kicking him when he's down! Get it!? DO YOU GET IT!? But it evades the answers to simple questions like "when does this movie take place?" There are things that cue the 90s, but the visual references are all 70s New York because director Todd Phillips isn't so much shooting a movie as doing Taxi Driver fan service. And then there's the plot beat with Thomas Wayne--the mayor of Gotham in this story--at a movie theater in a tuxedo watching a gala screening of a Charlie Chaplin film, I think? Why? How does this inform anything about the story? Why is his security detail suddenly not around at a time when agitated protesters are following his every move? Also, why is the Joker between twenty and thirty years older than Batman? I'm not one to nitpick plot holes, but some things are just so up-front that you can't ignore them.
Also, why was Robert DeNiro cast in this movie as a talk show host? He's not actually funny--he has many redeeming qualities, but broad humor and comic timing are not what come to mind first. Obviously, the real reason is because he was in The King of Comedy and Phillips is slavering at that Scorsese teat, but have you considered making your own movie instead of just riffing on older, better films? Pastiche for pastiche's sake is already Quentin Tarantino's bag, and at least he has the decency to riff on things that most of us haven't seen before.
But getting back to the acting, we also need to talk about Joaquin Phoenix. I have a mixed history with Phoenix. I hated him in Gladiator (and before you become the 153rd person to tell me that you're supposed to hate him in Gladiator, let me just assure you that that's not what I mean and that I know how movie villains work), but I thought he was fantastic in Buffalo Soldiers. I appreciate what he's trying to do here--which is not the best acting of his career, but it's definitely the most acting of his career. It's a grotesque and un-nuanced portrayal, yes, but it's also very earnest--right up until the finale, when he plops down on the couch to square off with DeNiro (side note: if the climax of your comic book movie is two people having a conversation on a couch... that's a choice). This is when his performance goes from big-but-bland to utter cringe. That entire scene is just skin-crawlingly awkward and I went from ennui to rage at the movie and its self-entitled Holden Caulfield act.
Which brings us back to that thing I said I was going to circle back to. This movie crosses the line from "bad" to "deplorable" with that scene and, really, its whole ethos. This movie is incel wish-fulfillment bullshit. Are you the kind of person who is socially awkward, who laughs at inappropriate moments, who lives with your mother but also hates her, who dreams of relationships with beautiful women who in reality will never notice you, who feels left behind by "the system"? Good news, my brother! Your plight will not go unheard. Because it turns out that secretly you're a charismatic man of the people, and if society doesn't do right by you, you're going to snap and start killing people, and it will all be their fault!
This is your message? That's how you make the Joker socially relevant? You have one of the most iconic characters in the world and you're using it to tell maladjusted self-righteous white dudes that they're the real heroes and also potential mass murderers all wrapped up in one? I mean, Jesus Effing Christ, people have been radicalized over less. You're doing actual harm at this point.
And what kills me--what absolutely kills me--is that there is a way to make this work. It's very simple. Lose the mental health angle and make the Joker not a white guy.
Yup. You read that right. Make it about race. Talk about actual injustices that are relevant to modern political discourse. Suddenly the white make-up becomes a caricature of whiteness. It also addresses one of the main modern criticisms of the character of Batman, that he is the embodiment of white male privilege. There's an interesting story to tell there with some real teeth. And if you're going to throw continuity out the window anyway, you might as well have something to say. Is it bold? Yes. Is it potentially fraught? Abso-effing-lutely. Could Todd Phillips make that movie? Almost certainly not (just hire Ryan Coogler). What it would not do is placate the sad bros who are still upset over... I dunno, whatever they're upset about these days.
Anyway, something lighter for next week. We'll take a look at a book that purports to be non-fiction, Andrew Hacker's The Math Myth: And Other Stem Delusions.
In CONSUMED WITH HATE, Kurt is revisiting media that he absolutely did not like one bit. See more posts.