Joker ★★½


Astute readers (of my Patreon, that is) will have already sussed out the pattern: having caught up with this year's winners at Cannes (Parasite) and Berlin (Synonyms), it was time to sit down with the unexpected and, to the minds of many, utterly unworthy recipient of the Golden Lion at this year's Venice Film Festival. Although I suspect folks would have been even more nonplussed if jury head Lucrecia Martel and company had given the top award to Roman Polanski (who took second), a "gritty" supervillain flick from the director of the Hangover trilogy wasn't anyone's idea of proper world cinema.

Meanwhile, the public has spoken. Joker is a massive hit, and seems destined to become one of those upper-middlebrow movies that pretentious Caucasian fratboys glom onto as part of their personal canon. One can easily see the Joker Blu-ray sharing shelf space with Fight Club, Requiem for a Dream, The Films of Quentin Tarantino, and of course, the granddaddy of all such swaggering Cinema du Trucknuts, A Clockwork Orange.

So yeah, Joker is a "thing." But people are both loving it and hating it far out of proportion to what the object actually is. As is fitting for a mediocre comedy director striking out into "serious" film by way of a DC property, Joker is mostly characterized by a try-hard attitude that usually serves it rather badly. This approach starts at the top. Joaquin Phoenix's performance, which entails the requisite 50 lb weight loss and furrowed-brow Method concentration needed to draw acclaim even from those mostly unimpressed with the movie overall, never feels lived in or organic. His Arthur Fleck displays mental illness as a kind of constant performance, shuffling here, bashful and addle-brained there, and then finally exaggerated and foppish.

And this speaks to the major problem with Joker. Phillips means to trade in a 70s-revivalist NYC realism. He has cited Network as a reference point, along with the obvious homages to Scorsese and Lumet. He even claimed to get some art direction ideas from Chantal Akerman's News from Home, a remark that was met with a fair amount of derision.

Regardless, Joker's aggressively filthy New York continually smacks up against the artifice of the comic book world. I don't just mean the clear intrusions of the "Batman" world -- Gotham City, Arkham Asylum, the Wayne family, etc. No, the constant random abuse inflicted on Arthur is overkill, a contrivance that beggars belief but is needed to produce "the Joker" as necessary trajectory. We're supposed to empathize with this man, but he's such a magnet for inexplicable hatred that he's difficult to perceive as anything other than an allegory.

And for what? This is where Joker really demonstrates how inconsequential a film it really is. Toward the end of the film, the character outright announces himself as apolitical, an untethered nihilist produced by a society that threw him away. (Cf. Saturday Night Live's "Oscar" parody.) But the early part of the film shows Arthur being assailed by young people of color, as well as having less than satisfying interactions with African-American women. These two women in particular, his neighbor Sophie (Zazie Beetz) and his social worker (Sharon Washington), are objects of desire and need for him, but they let him down.

But by the end of Joker, the target of the film's ire has shifted. No longer is it about MAGA-approved, neo-Travis Bickle recipients of xenophobic hate. It instead condemns the Waynes, and by extension, the wealthy (white) elite. Even the "lamestream media" get what is (supposedly) coming to them. So in true schizophrenic fashion, Joker is all over the place, happy to be all things to all constituencies while pledging allegiance to nobody.

Really, this is Donald Trump in a nutshell. What often looks like fascism is, at base, a willingness to do anything to secure the almighty dollar. So Joker is just another neoliberal con, an empty signifier, a sidesplitting guffaw prompted by no joke at all.