You'd think the director of The Hangover movies doing an aggressively somber adaptation of an iconic comic-book character was a joke but no. You'd think the movie being given an 8-minute standing ovation then a Golden Lion at the 76th Venice Festival was meant to be an elaborate prank but apparently not.
No this is a serious-as-a-heart-attack origins story of the character created by Bill Finger, Bob Kane, Jerry Robinson (who exactly did what still in dispute) previously incarnated on screens big and small by Cesar Romero, Jack Nicholson, Heath Ledger, Jared Leto (not even going into the animation voices, except that the most memorable was Mark Hamill's).
Philips assembles a grab bag of Joker stories and favorite (koff koff Scorsese koff koff) movies, mostly Taxi Driver and King of Comedy. But unlike say Brian de Palma or James Gray--who brazenly quote from others to later take off into their own personal ethers--his feels more like rote transcription, photocopied images pinned to his inner bedroom walls. If he jerked off to them I'd grudgingly grant him respect for the perversity of his taste but no; we're all invited to the group jerkoff, a grand repackaging of a classic DC supervillain, the ultimate incel for our sexually deprived firearm supplied times.
The first half is I suppose best, when Philips is most closely channeling Taxi Driver: handsomely lit rainstreaked city streets, ostensibly Gotham but shot mostly in New Jersey or New York, and I'm thinking: eyecatching, but no patch on Michael Chapman's blood red steel blue concrete gray work, verite realism pushed to the garish expressionist edge.* Hildur Guðnadóttir's music is of a piece in suggesting urban alienation but Bernard Hermann's sax and snare drum score both pointed up the muddled ideals percolating in Travis Bickle's head (the score is what Bickle wants playing as soundtrack to the movie of his life) and grappled with Scorsese's more skeptical imagery (basically: any point of view not Bickle's--Betsy's and Palantine's are crucial--plus the floating overhead shot that surveys the climactic bloodbath).
*(That said I think the New York Chapman paints onscreen is a roomier relatively cleaner less chaotic vision of hell than Lino Brocka's)
That I'd say was the genius of the film, four major artists at the peak of their powers working with and against each other and making sparks fly**: Schrader who half-believed in the righteousness of his vigilante; Scorsese and De Niro, who were horrified; and Hermann, who intensified the conflict with his alternately swooning and menacing score. Only one with any artistic ambitions or sensibilities I see in this picture is Joaquin Phoenix; like his character (birth name Arthur Fleck) he's stranded in the dark, all alone and with no real support.
**(Basically I agree with Jonathan Rosenbaum's take on the film, though I probably find the conflict more fascinating)
Then Philips throws in King of Comedy and you say: huh? King is a more ambiguous more precise work, a scalpel to Taxi's Smith & Wesson hand cannon. Referencing King makes sense I suppose--the guy is supposed to be a comedian--but the way it's shoehorned in here highlights Philips' grab-bag approach. King asserts that celebrities are jerks and the people who stalk them dangerous jerks who (though never said out loud) probably deserve each other; this movie plunks its sympathies solidly behind Fleck, giving us the sob story of his past complete with physical abuse and adoption papers, jerking our tears as shamelessly as that other example of the self-destructive self-absorbed male weepie, Bradley Cooper's debut remake (with no Lady Gaga for freshfaced counterpoint alas).
Plus King is funny. Joker can barely muster a decent laugh--maybe a few cheap digs at Leigh Gill as Fleck's diminutive co-worker--but King made us squirm in recognition of how far its protagonist Rupert Pupkin (Robert de Niro again) is prepared to go to meet Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis), and how far Jerry is prepared to go to keep Rupert at arm's length. Joker never comes anywhere near that level of disturbing because 1) it opts for a more hyperbolic look, a comic book's idea of noir and 2) we're kept firmly on Fleck's side, no matter how horrific his acts--bound even tighter in fact, since the motivating cause is his spiraling madness and he's clearly the victim; no ambivalence, only bright primary colors.
The movie takes off from Alan Moore's The Killing Joke which Moore has since repudiated (rightly so, I think). That said Moore's treatment is is not without interest: his Joker starts out an ordinary man who gave up his chemical engineering career in the halfassed hope that he can succeed as a standup comic; no mental condition, no history of abuse, just a depressed basically decent guy with a touch of hubris who had one really bad day and snaps--hasn't looked back since.
Modulating the character instead of starting him out at the extreme lower end of society helps, I think; it gives him a direction to go (down), gives us the chance to see ourselves in him--to see the possibility that extreme trauma might drive us crazy (or otherwise, which is the part of Moore's story that's often ignored). Insanity (not to mention history of abuse and adoption) in Philips' movie is flashed at us like an ID badge, a lazy writer's excuse--laughs at strange moments? It's a condition. Violent tendencies? Condition. Imaginary relationship? Take a wild effing guess.
But I forget, it's a comic book movie--we shouldn't be applying high standards of characterization or motivation, tho I've seen a few adaptations that don't do too bad (Ghost World; American Splendor; A History of Violence) and a few original works involving masked vigilantes that present reasonably rounded protagonists (Super).
"But" I'm asked "surely you appreciate Phoenix's eponymous performance, his latest and best chance to win an Oscar?" I've stopped trying to pick out performances; a performance that stands out in an otherwise bad movie may be interesting--suggests the actor was stuck in a poor production and just decided to work creatively on his own--but the movie remains bad. I think someone like Brad Pitt--who's more Hollywood star than thespian of Phoenix's calibre--actually turned in a better performance in James Gray's Ad Astra because the actor did what the director needed him to do: be the withdrawn alienated figure at the center of a interplanetary epic (which I find wonderfully perverse because it's a large-scale production with a withdrawn figure at its center). Phoenix hangs out there in a vacuum: he reads from a muddled scenario with no rounded character to play, just a handful of hazy notions pilfered from different movies, ultimately meant to be crammed into a pre-existing mythology. The other characters are disposable if not imaginary; even the mob that eventually idolizes him seems motivated more by script direction than recognizably human drives ("He's the Joker! Follow him!")***.
*(I suppose you can say the rioters recognize him as the killer of famous talk show host Murray Franklin (De Niro yet again, this time in the Jerry Lewis role) live on TV--but if they were out on the streets rioting when where they able to watch? And why should they care, since Franklin was never established as pro- or anti-rioter? While we're at it, why would Franklin use the video of Fleck's act without permission, exposing the show to possible legal action, then invite him as a guest without even a cursory security check (I mean--the guy could be a psycho right?)? And why is billionaire and mayoral candidate Thomas Wayne (if the name doesn't ring bells you probably shouldn't be watching this) so cheap on security--for his son in their estate garden, for himself in the men's room, for his family when out watching a movie (Couldn't he afford a private theater?)?)
Is the movie some kind of statement, as Michael Moore claims, about disaffected America, the folks that voted Trump into power? That's opportunism of the most ingenious kind, on Moore's part and on Philips' part. Moore writes provocatively about the structures and institutions that took our money and turned our assets worthless but doesn't really make the case that there's a connection between the two other than Wayne = rich bad guy, Fleck = penniless victim--in short: comic book. A more coherent explanation of what happened might mean watching Adam McKay's The Big Short, or Ramin Bahrani's 99 Homes; A more interesting portrait of both institutional victimizer and victim with inventive response would be Hell and High Water, which offers an even more persuasive argument than Philips for seeking retribution from the mofos who created the whole mess.
O and Moore's statement: "you will thank this movie for connecting you to a new desire--not to run to the nearest exit to save your own ass but rather to stand and fight and focus your attention on the nonviolent power you hold in your hands every single day." Got to hand it to the man: that's as eloquently put exquisitely deluded piece of crap as anything I've heard recently. God bless im, he's on the side of the angels and not without rhetorical power, but you need to take him in small doses, preferably with a chunk of salt.
Does Phoenix deserve an Oscar? It's not even his best work--he was more unsettling in You Were Never Really Here where his swollen belly then suggested depressed dissipation better than his emaciated ribs now (I can imagine--having been there myself--a depressed man over- rather than under- eating, especially in today's binge-prone America). Plus Lynne Ramsey unlike Philips is a real filmmaker with an unsettlingly oblique take on action sequences, catching glimpses of Phoenix on surveillance camera rounding corners or just passing out a doorway while the man he's just bludgeoned with a ballpeen hammer crumples to the floor. Plus the moment Joe gutshots the man who killed his mother and, as the man thrashes on their kitchen floor dying, joins him in a quietly agonized rendition of "I've Never Been to Me"--nothing in Philips' movie comes close to being as perversely tender, or grotesquely funny.
Does Phoenix deserve an Oscar? Considering that I think of an Oscar more as an indicator of big box-office and savvy marketing than of quality cinema--sure. Why not? It's flashy enough and controversial enough, more in terms of articles written than ideas involved, and millions of fanboys are wishing him the gift of a goldplated butt plug. Much good it'll do him, and I suspect he knows as much.
First published in Businessworld 10.11.19