Joker ★½

Invariably, professing a lack of interest in something and then writing about it is going to seem performative, so I won't claim complete disinterest. I will say that the reason I ultimately watched this after holding out for months is, rather than the subject matter and involved artists, that it became one of the most successful movies of all time and won the big dick award at Venice. At a certain point, curiosity overwhelms prejudice. And, now, I get it.

Joker (2019) is a relative rarity in contemporary popular cinema in that it displays clear compositional intent. Todd Phillips obviously sincerely believes in this as an important film, both to himself and to the world, and the evidence of his labor over it is as vivid as the Joker's makeup and clothes. There are establishing shots and ESTABLISHING SHOTS and Phillips establishes the shit out of his shots. Dialogue scenes are shot in rote fashion, but whatever, those establishing shots efuckingstablish shit. Mostly "this is an establishing shot," but still.

Of course, the principal attraction here is Joaquin Phoenix, the title character, the engine, the axis, the star of the show. Much has been made of his performance. He does a lot of acting in this movie. He turned in what might be the best screen performance of the 2010s. It's just that that performance was in The Master. Here, as the comedian-clown-catalyst of chaos Arthur Fleck, he expends entire universes of energy on an impressive array of tics, meant to signify inner torment, and manipulates his body into an endlessly fascinating sequences of images and movements. Simply watching Joaquin Phoenix physically exist is compelling, because he's always doing something, and his intent is rarely immediately apparent, which is beguiling in its way.

The thing is, though, a performance is part of a text. In some cases, the performance is itself the entirety of the thing, and so its contradictions and obfuscations are the point. In this case, the text is an origin story (that phrasing is deliberate, it's not meant to be THE origin story) of the Joker, the most famous antagonist of comic book (and, at this late date, long-standing cinematic) superhero Batman. There are as many ways to get there as there are storytellers to tell the story, but that's the point.

This film is not that. Divorced from its context as a Joker origin story, it's a series of vignettes about a deeply disturbed man in which it's never clear what's happening to him is real or a figment of his imagination. If the unknowability of objective reality (or its very existence) is the point here, then fine. But I don't think it is.

Joker wants to have everything both ways, from whether Arthur is a madman or a hero, whether its politics are broadly left-wing protest or fascist endorsement of vigilantism, whether it's a franchise tentpole or an experimental art film. Its soul is a smirking question "Who's to say?" At some point, someone has to.

If there's a positive note to end on, beside the score being quite good, it's that the decision "what is Joker?" is left to the audience, so anyone who wants to project depth onto this film or who finds genuine inspiration in the idea of a wild card shaking up the order of things or who has any interest in the dramatic gravitas of the Joker as a character is perfectly free to do so.

I think this film is an intermittently interesting collection of gestures that doesn't cohere into anything. Its weird anachronisms call into question why it's not simply set in the present day, but that remains at the level of a question. Joker commits to nothing. One finds oneself hoping the guy would actually fucking tell you where he got those scars.

bybowes liked this review