This movie doesn’t live up to the expectations its buzz had set in the month following its premiere up to its nationwide release. It isn’t any more dangerous than any other number of other adult films pushing centrist rhetoric without making explicit statements. JOKER feels apolitical and tepid in its approach to issues, constructing an overly simplified through-line from the city’s poor mental health funding to widespread disenchantment to the rise of the Joker and acolytes. Following the murder of three finance grunts on an empty train, protestors rally fervently against the rich, championing the Joker’s clown iconography, despite the character having no political leaning of his own. He says as much at several points, admitting that he doesn’t believe in anything, but nonetheless adopts the fervor of the masses as his own. It’s convenient, and undercooked, for a movie of this scale to eschew developing a stance of its own in favor of broadly gesturing at the inner rage just waiting to be awakened in every ‘average citizen’.

The movie is dark and extremely serious, as the oppressive corridors and green hued lighting illustrate over and over again. In striving for prestige, to be a serious character study removed from the reputation of comic book films, JOKER undercuts itself. Rather than depicting the character in his more typically amplified state and building a satire of sorts around his system of beliefs and tracing that to the growth of terrorist movements in the contemporary era, this movie wants us to sympathize with the clown gone mad by the system’s ills. It’s the system that has failed him, and this is what happens! The climax states this thesis directly, too, in case you weren’t entirely sure of what was going on beforehand.

I was further blindsided by the second act of this, having gone in with the knowledge that this was unlike a typical comicbook origin story. For about 40 minutes, Arthur Fleck becomes an amateur gumshoe obsessed with interrogating Thomas Wayne to learn the truth about his parentage, leading to several bizarre encounters and terrible scenes that serve to further flesh out how he came to be. In one, Fleck confronts Brian Tyree Henry at Arkham Asylum about his mother’s file, and learns she was a shizophrenic prone to delusions. In Arthur’s quest to uncover this truth, this revelation is meant to strike us as a denouncement of her credibility: “behold! she was an ill woman admitted to an asylum! her tale is surely fabricated.” That, along with the admission that Arthur was adopted by Penny as a boy are a gross shorthand in suggesting the evolution of his mental illness. Thomas Wayne doesn’t matter to me in the context of this story; and the scene where Fleck intimidates the young Bruce Wayne through the gates of the manor is even more unnecessary. It feels like far too simple material that should’ve been left on the cutting room floor, but instead occupies an entire Act here. We even circle back in the ending sequence to see Bruce and Martha Wayne get shot!

There are a lot of movies with bad scripts and good visuals that I usually defend, but I’m not too interested in getting behind JOKER. Phoenix’s performance is solid, but it's far from his best work. Still, his physicality is captivating, with ribcage and shoulder blades jutting profusely from sallow, gray skin, hair falling in greasy locks, with face gaunt and searching. He commits thoroughly to this performance, feeling like a cross between his work in THE MASTER and YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE. It’s disturbing, but lacks the specificity both of those previous roles, as well as the DeNiro performances in TAXI DRIVER and THE KING OF COMEDY that he’s drawing so much from. It doesn’t occur to Travis Bickle why it’s inappropriate to take a date to a porn theater, and that is highly specific to his characterization. As they spiral, both men draw from the iconography of past traumatic experiences to shape their new appearance of resolute power (travis’ mohawk and jacket, joker’s decked-out clown), but in JOKER’s case it all feels so much less specifically identifiable as an individual character. I don’t ever feel like I’m getting a true sense of who Arthur Fleck is, but rather ‘why’ he has become this way as a consequence of various errors and breakages in society. He’s less person and more vague concept.

JOKER further converts the character’s hysterical laughter into a neurological condition that is triggered upon discomfort and sadness. It’s a bizarre screenwriting “a-ha!” addendum to the character that feels more disingenuous than keeping the original character’s cartoonish fallen into a vat of green toxin origin. While it produces a significant amount of the tense encounters and discomfort of the movie, the treatment of mental illness, prescription medication, and disability identification is ultra rickety and often distasteful in this. If anything, this is the most significant source of the movie’s “dangerous” impact.

Alex liked this review