'Joker' Review: A Thrill Without Wit

The first worthwhile Joker since Heath Ledger.

Joker
Warner Bros.

A Joker with a name: Arthur Fleck — a bone-poppingly thin middle-aged man with a neurological condition that causes him to laugh uncontrollably. He’s a clinically-deemed lunatic who lives in an old apartment with his aging mother amidst the grime that is Gotham’s perpetual smog. Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) dons a soft smile and breathes a tender, impressionable, good-spirited soul, as malleable as his beaten body, which conjures memory of the lack of person that was Christian Bale in The Machinist. Clinging to the maternally-infused belief that he was born to bring joy and laughter into the world, he writes jokes in pursuit of a stand-up comedy career when he’s not working as a sign-holding advertisement clown, the job being one of the few things that offers him respite in his miserable life.

He was once confined to an insane asylum, but now, on the outside, his asylum comes in the form of seven pills a day, which, quite frankly, aren’t doing the trick. His unwanted, compulsory laugh freaks everyone out and often causes him to choke, much to his fury. Fleck is a strange, conflicted man. He drapes loose, weathered cardigans over his spikey shoulders and wears a hairstyle that screams Anton Chigurh. His social sensibilities are all but nonexistent and he misspells everything in his jokebook. He dances gracefully in the least opportune moments (e.g. murder) and confoundingly finds glee in bedlam. His eyes gleam with a hope that’s only ever spit on and kicked repeatedly while its down.

In short, writer-director Todd Phillips‘ Joker is a victim of sorts — the kind that eventually flips the script and carries out a school shooting or mass transit bombing. But you already know that. In essence, this is the same Joker you’ve met on screens and in comics. The nuance of Phoenix’s performance adds a necessary freshness and, ultimately, sets his iteration apart, but it wouldn’t take long to figure out who you were watching if you went in with no previous knowledge of who Phoenix was portraying (and you missed the title card). And while this might be the first full-fledged Joker origin story, it’s not an original one. Joker’s origins are made up of tried and true outcast essentials.

However, this is not a repeat performance. Phoenix fashions an astoundingly original portrayal of the seminal villain. That’s not to say he’s ignorant of the history behind the role though. While he claims he left past performances entirely out of sight, his depiction says otherwise. Traces of Jack Nicholson peak through, but Heath Ledger’s impact is much more prominent — the long, greasy-green hair, the nervous ticks, the realism and concomitant departure from comic book movie stereotypes, the dread. How could anyone in the modern day play the Joker without thinking about Ledger?

Phoenix and Ledger were friends, and few things need less repeating than the fact that Ledger’s Joker holds as one of the greatest performances of the 21st century, if not all time, so it makes sense that Phoenix would take inspiration from the master of the role (Jared Leto might’ve benefited from such awareness). Moreover, every Ledger-like strand in the DNA of Phoenix’s Joker swells with appreciation. No doubt Ledger would’ve applauded him. Yet, with all the Phoenix vs. Ledger speculation buzz, it makes sense that he’d deflect at a press conference. One mention like, “I took inspiration from…” would’ve turned the media into a dumpster fire of reductive commentary. Once again, Phoenix’s take is truly its own.

Ledger’s Joker was a poised, confident, secure mastermind of chaos. Fleck is a purebred outcast, an abused puppy, a ticking bomb whose clock is broken — ready to explode with insecurity and psychosis at any moment. Sure, he never gets a fair shake. Despite all of the shit he trudges through, he puts himself out there time and time again, always bullied and maligned as a result. Co-workers plot deviously against him for no reason. He can’t even catch a break after getting mugged without his boss hovering the possibility of termination over his head. For a good portion of the film, Fleck isn’t a villain. We’re rooting for him, angry at every low life that gets a kick out of belittling him. But the sympathetic eye of Phillips’ camera becomes confusing early on.

The film does a great deal of layperson’s philosophizing, but most of it can’t hold water. Especially, but not limited to, the socio-political musings, which are simultaneously tumbling out of college freshman’s mouths across the country post-Philosophy 101. For example, there’s an empty subplot in which Fleck’s first villainous actions accidentally incite class-based activist riots. “Kill the Rich!” the clown mask-adorned rioters scream, their chant infused with a sinister nature both ambiguous and undeserved. Are we supposed to root for the greed of the rich or the unwieldy slaughtering of them? Those are our two options.

The riots become the backdrop for Fleck’s transformation, but Phillips muddies the ethics of the film so fervently, you can’t make out any decent intentions in the process. It has a “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” vibe, which, combined with the “bum rush the panopticon” vibe, seems like sheer moral anarchy. Art cannot be blamed for stirring violence in the masses because art doesn’t have agency. But it’s always fair to question the artist. Why would Phillips choose to glorify and empathize with a terrorist? Why would he weaponize the justice-craving masses in order to arm the titular villain? Maybe he’s just a nihilist?

It’ll be interesting to hear what screenwriters Phillips and Scott Silver had in mind, because the final cut of the film has no intellectual identity. It doesn’t try to shove a message down our throats — which, in a film from a major studio, is always appreciated — but it doesn’t posit a thought-provoking thesis either. It simply has no clue what it’s trying to say. Unless it’s proudly suggesting that the emotional rollercoaster of pent-up incel insanity is valid cause for grotesque violence, in which case someone close to Phillips should hold an intervention or skip straight to the punchline and call the fuzz.

Another thing seems overwhelmingly true after watching a film like Joker: the comic book movie’s “hard R” is every other genre’s middling R. The impetus behind the scant explicit material of the film is wanting, as if it craved the R rating solely for advertising purposes. This isn’t a judgment on the excess violence and vulgarity (or lack thereof); rather a suggestion that the team behind Joker might’ve asked the MPAA to add the “strong bloody” phrase in front of “violence” in order to send an extra thrill up the spines of the anticipatory viewers. Barring one scene, the violence is gravely understated by the effects that follow each blow. For example, Fleck is hammered across the face, but the blunt impact of the thick fist doesn’t leave a mark or strike blood. DC Black is clearly still in development.

On the bright side, Joker thrives as an intimate character study, and has a wonderful cast of supporting characters that includes, in order of screen time, Robert De Niro as Late Show Host and Fleck’s comic idol, Murray Franklin, Zazie Beetz as a prop love interest, Bill Camp and Shea Wigham as stiff detectives, Marc Maron, and Brian Tyree Henry. Outside of the jock jam that soundtracks Fleck’s first full villain makeover, the music is perfect, songs like “Send in the Clown,” “White Room” (“I’ll sleep in this place with the lonely crowd/Lie in the dark where the shadows run from themselves”), and “That’s Life!” acting as scaffolding for the tight thematic energy. It’s nothing like a comic book movie, or a superhero film. Action is scarce, and when it strikes, it’s more cringe-worthy than fun.

Joker is more like a Scorsese film than a new DCEU installment, with its pitiful, lawless subject a 1981 blend of Rupert Pupkin, Travis Bickle, and Christine Chubbuck. The story of Fleck is the story of your average stand-up comedian trying to make it in New York City/Gotham City. The only difference is that Fleck is willing to wreak havoc when he bombs. Of course, like most aspiring comedians, he never stood a chance in the first place. But maybe he already knew that, hence why his favorite joke reads, “I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.”

Luke bleeds film and music, got his master's in film & ethics at Duke, and thinks every occasion should include one of the following: whiskey, coffee, gin, tea, beer, or basketball.