Joker is a movie that thinks it has a lot to say and fancies itself The Social Commentary Of Our Time, but in reality it’s a mishmash of Hot Button Social Issues without anything interesting to say at all. So, in that respect, it’s the perfect movie for 2019. Joker is our comeuppance.
And it almost seems fitting that the man to deliver our comeuppance is the director of The Hangover and Old School. For the record, I like those movies. But, no, I guess it’s not surprising that the director of Starsky & Hutch couldn’t quite pull off this pretty ambitious task. Look, I actually like most of Todd Phillips’ movies. And Joker is well shot and Joaquin Phoenix is, of course, a very good actor and will almost definitely get an Oscar nomination out of all this. But as the film goes on, it starts to feel gritty just for grit’s sake. And, yes, we too have seen Martin Scorsese movies, which Phillips borrows from liberally here, even casting Robert De Niro in the Jerry Langford role from The King of Comedy. And by the fifth or sixth time we get Phoenix alone in a room, laughing maniacally to himself, it’s like, we get it. I walked out of the movie feeling a mixture of gross and numb, but mostly numb. Joker has some extremely violent scenes, but I really didn’t feel much of anything while watching it. Again, it’s the perfect movie for 2019. We watch the horror, feel somewhat helpless, then move on.
There’s a particular scene in Joker that just feels like punishment. Joker has just finished brutally murdering a man with a pair of scissors, then he turns to a staircase and starts triumphantly dancing down them in slow motion to Gary Glitter’s “Rock & Roll Part 2” – a musician who was sent to prison for child porn and sexually abusing a child; I guess Mr. Glitter will be getting a payday out of this – and I couldn’t help but feel I was being punished for some past sin. Like karma had finally caught up with me and forced me to watch this.
Set in the early 1980s, Phoenix plays Arthur Fleck, a man with severe mental issues who, once he goes off his medication, becomes a homicidal maniac. Ah, yes, a comic book movie! What rubs me the wrong way about all this is Arthur isn’t actually some vigilante trying to cause chaos for the sake of chaos – which would be more reminiscent of Heath Ledger’s version of Joker. No, Ledger’s Joker is not a good dude, but there’s at least some sort of grand plan to his behavior. Instead, Arthur’s just a deeply sick man who kind of lucks into a motivation because he kills three stockbroker types who were picking on him, which divides the city into a sort of Occupy Wall Street type movement. So a good portion of the people of Gotham thinks he’s a hero for killing some rich snobs. I’m fairly positive the movie kind of thinks he’s a hero, at least in that vague, “Hey, he’s not a black and white character, decide for yourself,” kind of way. But in reality, we’re just sitting there watching this mentally ill man fall deeper and deeper into his sickness because he went off of his medication.
There’s been “talk” of this movie inciting violence, which is maybe a strange argument to make when there’s already so much violence in our world. People don’t seem to need much of an excuse to do terrible things before Joker and they won’t after. Joker is less a disease and more a symptom. So, in that way, I do sort of credit Phillips for creating a movie that is so angry and thinks it’s so important, yet can’t quite figure out why or what. It truly is the movie made for now. Everything has kind of led up to this movie in our popular culture. And Phillips has made a movie that will get a lot of attention, which isn’t easy to do today. I didn’t much care for Joker, but it’s not disposable like a lot of other movies. It won’t just come and go. Like it or not, Joker will be a part of our lives for a while.
Joker thinks it will shock you with its violence, but the reality is it just leaves a viewer feeling nothing. Joker isn’t even trying to make Arthur sympathetic. Trying to make Arthur at all sympathetic would require a little more thought than, “Let’s just make a cool looking gritty movie like Taxi Driver.” Instead, it just seems to take joy in watching this mentally ill man, who was abused as a child, plunge into a world of darkness in a, “Wow, ain’t this guy fucked up?!,” kind of way.
But there’s a big part of me that is happy this movie exists. The world is garbage right now and when we tell future generations about 2019, we can just pop in Joker and say, “This was considered entertainment.” It will probably win Best Picture just to spite us. We all deserve Joker. Joker is our comeuppance.