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’Joker‘ isn’t worth the uproar

| Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Joseph Han

Todd Phillips’ “Joker” is the sound of one hand clapping. It is a self-congratulatory, faux-introspective mess that draws a queasy connection between mental health and violence while appearing blissfully unaware of the cultural and social climate into which it has been borne. In more adept hands, the latest take on DC’s Clown Prince of Crime could have had something important to say; instead, writer-director Phillips commits one of the cardinal sins of comedy. He spends the whole movie laughing at his own joke.

“Joker” offers a largely Batman-free take on the most famous villain in comic-book history, with a dilapidated Gotham City serving as a stand-in for Ed Koch era New York City. In a town left filthy by an ongoing garbage strike, clown-for-hire Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix in a typically sweaty performance) lives with his ailing mother while desperately trying to make it as a stand-up comedian.

Two major obstacles stand in the way of Arthur’s dream: first of all, he isn’t funny. More importantly, he is suffering from a debilitating set of untreated mental illnesses, implied to stem from severe narcissistic personality disorder. A brutal episode of childhood abuse leaves Arthur suffering from pathological uncontrolled laughter, further separating him from a society that he desperately wants to fit into.

Beset on all sides, Arthur finally snaps in a shocking display of violence that inspires Gotham City’s underclass to don clown makeup and brings the city’s tensions to a simmering head. As his alter-ego’s notoriety increases, Arthur maneuvers for a chance to appear on a late-night television show hosted by his hero, Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro, who is hopefully financing a very nice beach house with this paycheck).

Phillips has repeatedly cited the influence of Martin Scorcese’s films on “Joker,” but this seems like a cheap ploy to add a sheen of prestige to his picture. Counting “Taxi Driver” as an inspiration for a film this bad is akin to a finger painting evoking “Guernica.”

Where those Scorcese films offered a damning look at how ignorance of society’s downtrodden can lead to violence, “Joker” has no such interest. Far from condemning the depraved acts performed by its title character, Phillips shoots them in a light that is at once celebratory and voyeuristic. Whenever we may feel sympathy for a man like Arthur, the audience is instead forced towards unearned worship by Phillips’ hand. By the time Arthur is laid out into a Christlike pose at the film’s denouement, we’re already subservient to a character who doesn’t deserve our praise.

Much of the controversy around “Joker” is well-earned. While it seems highly unlikely that a movie about a comic-book character would be the impetus of real life violence, both Phillips and Phoenix have shown in this film’s press tour that they neglected to consider the implications of their movie. In 2019, a film about a lonely, angry white man who self-actualizes through violence has obvious parallels outside the cinema. Instead of addressing these, Phillips has outright ignored them. As a filmmaker, Phillips is not responsible for the impact of his creation; he is, however, responsible for creating a work that is at least aware of its own themes.

All of this extra-textual discussion would have more weight if the film were a worthwhile piece of art in the first place. Outside of Phoenix’s languid turn, almost nothing about “Joker” makes it worthy of recommendation. Any apparent depth the film may offer is illusory, carrying as much thematic weight as one of the balloon animals Arthur blows up at his day job. A comparison to his dream occupation of stand-up may be more apt, however. At the screening I attended, parts of the audience did indeed laugh during the film. I don’t know why — after all, the joke was on us.


MOVIE: “Joker”

DIRECTOR: Todd Phillips

STARRING: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro

IF YOU LIKE: “Fight Club,” “Suicide Squad”

SHAMROCKS: 1 out of 5

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