This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.
Esther Rosenfield’s review published on Letterboxd:
This review may contain spoilers.
So. ........ Okay.
When I read the script that leaked a couple months ago, I was kind of in awe of how terrible it was. Overwritten, tryhard tripe so utterly obsessed with trying to convince you of its meaning that it forgets to actually have any. It is, on the page, laughably atrocious.
But......GOD. And to be clear, I'm not happy about this. There are scenes in this movie that actually work. Arthur's early daydream about him getting picked out of the crowd at the talk show, which escalates into Murray Franklin becoming his new father, is kind of endearing in its more pathetic details. Phoenix is good here at playing what Arthur imagines to be a pitiable chump, and the contrast between his obviously phony demeanor and the heartfelt cooing of everyone around him is actually pretty effective.
I also enjoyed the scene later on when he rehearses how he'll lead into his on-air suicide. It kind of strikes this perfect tone of bleak hilarity, like the Todd directing this was Solondz and not Phillips. And it does a good job of necessarily undercutting the supposedly intended "shocking drama" that follows. It actually does something that no previous iteration of this character has managed to do, something I think most people (myself included) assumed it couldn't: It demystifies the guy. In fact, I'm almost willing to argue that Arthur's lack of substantive characterization works in the film's favor. There's nothing special about this Joker, nothing secretly noble or admirable. He's just some guy.
It's in moments like the rehearsal scene (and there are a surprising number) where Joker approaches a sort of camp apex. I've seen a lot of people knock the film for being too self-serious in a way that reveals its fundamental hollowness. I think this unfairly discounts obvious moments of actual humor, like the scene where Arthur is entertaining child cancer patients when a gun slips out of his pants, at which he lets out a high-pitched shriek and accidentally kicks it across the room. Or him, covered in the blood of one coworker, loudly shouting "boo!" at the other as he tries to get away. I'm not going to sit here and claim that the film doesn't want to be taken seriously, it absolutely does. But I do think it's much more open to ironic enjoyment than people are giving it credit for. He gets away from two cops by getting onto a subway car that's entirely filled with other people dressed as clowns! Come on, that's like a fuckin MadTV sketch.
And yet........yeah. It really wants to be taken seriously. And Phillips' gestures at seriousness are mostly pretty boring. The bizarre motif of Arthur's fixation on dancing never really plays, despite Phoenix being as always an interesting physical presence. It feels like a pretty naked attempt at "arthouse" aesthetics by a man who probably has never seen the movies he think's he's mimicking. The film has nothing to say, of course, though it wants to make sure you know that. Everyone's harped on the moment where Arthur actually says out loud "I'm not political, I don't believe in anything," but I think the more instructive bit is in the same scene, when Murray and his guest patronizingly admonish Arthur for telling an off-color joke. "You can't joke about stuff like that!" they say, in tones of voice that could be read as either genuinely concerned or parodically heightened, depending on whatever stance best fits your pre-determined read of the film.
The discourse around the film continues to be hilarious to me, of course. There's nothing to this movie in any direction. It's not going to inspire mass shooters because it has no point of view. It has nothing of substance to say about class warfare or the importance of welfare programs. It's not an alt-right manifesto. It's literally just a mostly-watchable King of Comedy knockoff with a fun lead performance. The film doesn't have a single thing to say, not one solitary thought in its head. Except, perhaps, that all this might make for a pretty funny act.