Joker ★½

About 10 minutes in, I leaned to Nick and whispered, "If we were watching this at home, I would have turned it off by now." There were a couple actually good scenes in the remainder of the film, but if you're gonna follow the "3 good scenes" rule, you can't forget the "no bad ones" half.

For me, the biggest hurdle was the level of cruelty that almost every non-Arthur speaking role has in this movie. The movie opens with teens stealing the sign he's twirling and shortly thereafter beating the ever loving shit out of him. His social worker doesn't care about him in the slightest. Arthur gains a form of cruelty by the end, of course. Perhaps the only person without it is Gary, whose stature is consistently mined for what passes for jokes in a Todd Phillips movie.

For real, Todd Phillips is so unfunny that in the scene where Arthur imagines he's performing an actually good stand-up set, they just cut to music and ambient crowd laughter. When it comes to daydreams about ranting for paragraphs about how we live in a society, we get it all. I get that the Joker is not intended to be funny (and I actually think this movie does a pretty good job showcasing specific ways in which a person can be unfunny), but truthfully I'm happy to give any amount of shit to Todd Phillips. Perhaps this is another form of cruelty begetting cruelty, which you would think he would appreciate. Instead, he complains about how he's not allowed to be funny anymore. I think if he was honest in his comedy, he'd he'd figure out a way around this "roadblock," or hell even double down (which Joker ends up doing in this movie). I'd respect that more than folding his arms and saying, "Fine! No more funnies for you!"

So the cruelty is the biggest hurdle from me. I talked to a friend of mine who loved the movie, and he said that it actually fairly well reflects his experience growing up. He and I have had pretty different lives (about as different as 2 white American males haha), and to him the cruelty of Gotham was an accurate cinematic representation of how the city he grew up in treated its lower class. Whether or not they're trying to help, the social workers weren't helpful. However much it professes to care about its citizens, the city is only interested in courting the rich and constantly lowering the bar for what can be considered bare minimum concern for anyone without money. That conversation gave me a lot to chew on, and I do think that everything he said has merit and that it is all contained within the movie itself.

However, then a new problem emerges: this movie is fucking boring. There are decades and decades of movies that have borrowed, innovated, rehashed, and normalized various conventions and techniques of filmmaking that have resulted in what might be called the "Prestige" aesthetic. One point in favor of this aesthetic: it does take a fair amount of competence from every single person involved to pull it off. So fair enough: Joker looks good. I like the score and think it does a lot of the heavy lifting on scenes that people seem to respond positively to. But when Prestige doesn't click with the viewer (in this case, just me), it reads more like hagiography, wringing every possible emotion out of every scene in an attempt to overwhelm, where perhaps a more even-handed approach might suffice and then perhaps lend more emotion to scenes where it's actually called for by offering contrast.

I'll admit that this is rich coming from a guy whose favorite movies include The Matrix (one of the great on-the-nose Wachowski masterpieces) and Road To Perdition (perhaps one of the best Prestige aesthetic movie examples that didn't earn much actual prestige), but Joker treats every emotional revelation like the climax of the film. This is in part due to Joaquin Phoenix going absolutely ham. Mileage may vary.

I just realized how much I've written and how long I've spent writing it. So I'll summarize with this: Ultimately this movie is dull because it doesn't have much to say one way or the other. It's just broad enough that you can read your politics of choice into it. Todd Phillips is bad but even a stopped clock is dot dot dot. Comic book movie fans haven't gotten a movie that looked this good in a while. And if you're thinking of writing a movie that "may or may not mostly happen in the main character's head," perhaps you should let that dumbass idea percolate in your head a little while longer.

I will now undermine my summary with an addendum: another friend of mine, John Weinert, pointed out that Arthur Fleck probably could have made his way pretty well as an Andy Kaufman type. His jokes are terrible, but his physical comedy is actually pretty good. This alternate path would mean that, in the 90's of this universe, DC comics alternate version of R.E.M. would write a song about him called Society on the Moon. If that's ultimately where we're going with this, then I take back every negative comment I wrote here.

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