If Todd Phillips’ Joker had been better, or worse, then the pre-release controversy might have been worth something. If it defied the odds as a prestige work, or if it were a sloppy misfire, the incessant discourse might have led somewhere interesting. But a technically slick yet thematically shallow production keeps us in exactly the same gear, having the exact same conversation about depiction vs. endorsement, worship of serial killers, the connection between violent entertainment and mass shootings. (There is none, by the way.) Joker is, unfortunately, neither a revelation nor a trainwreck. It’s an entirely conventional origin story wrapped in homages to films with loftier aims.
The fact that Joker is so mediocre is more frustrating than if it had been a disaster. It might have gone down with its principles, a failure that crashed with the courage of its convictions as a movie you may not like but have to respect. It’s supposedly a standalone film, but goes out of its way to connect to the broader Batman mythos with an undeniably sequel-friendly conclusion. There’s a faint notion of social commentary, but the most it can muster is that class animosity exists, with about as much sophistication as a college freshman who’s halfway through reading his first Nietzsche. As for the notion that the film is in the same league as Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy—openly inviting comparisons to better movies will make you wish you were watching them instead.
R, 122 minutes
Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX, Violet Crown Cinema
The story follows Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a professional clown in Gotham with pseudobulbar affect, a condition that causes uncontrollable fits of laughter. The job earns him little respect and even less money, but the love of his mother and the optimism of a future in stand-up comedy keep him going. A series of humiliating events lead him to kill three wealthy young men: two in self defense, the last for pure revenge. Though it was not a political act, it sets off a wave of clown-themed anti-rich demonstrations, but as this movement escalates, the stability of Arthur’s life deteriorates.
Phoenix is certainly mesmerizing, but there is a key flaw of perspective that never allows the film to live up to its ambition. To draw on Taxi Driver, a major component of that film’s cohesion is that it is entirely built around the point of view of Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro), a traumatized Vietnam veteran with racist and delusional tendencies. We see where Bickle’s reality breaks with ours—not just the story, not just his internal monologue, but the form of it: cinematography, editing, sound design, everything. Scoresese’s depictions of unsavory characters stand apart, in that by adopting their perspective, he is able to find the three-dimensional person beneath the caricature.
Phillips meanwhile, is totally neutral. He’s a much better filmmaker than his previous comedies show (The Hangover series, Old School, Road Trip), but he pours production value into what is essentially a feature-length closeup of Phoenix acting his ass off, even during his big “Listen up, society!” moment. If Scorsese had just pointed a camera at De Niro during the “Listen you fuckers, you screwheads” speech, it would have been empty.
Joker might have been better off as an R-rated version of a conventional comic book movie. We have Deadpool, Logan, and Watchmen, so bringing the nihilism of Christopher Nolan’s vision into the DC Extended Universe might have worked. But by masquerading as a masterpiece, Joker only highlights the ways that it is not.
Local theater listings
Alamo Drafthouse Cinema 375 Merchant Walk Sq., 326-5056.
Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX The Shops at Stonefield, 244-3213.
Violet Crown Cinema 200 W. Main St., Downtown Mall, 529-3000.