In Joker’s climax, Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), in full villain regalia having transcended his “mentally ill unemployed guy who lives with his mother” roots, sits before a large live studio audience and tells a joke. It isn’t a particularly funny joke, or a very good set-up, but writer-director Todd Phillips doesn’t seem to care if it is, or isn’t, or whatever. Phillips just seems to hate that he has to tell a joke at all.
Todd Phillips seems to hate a lot of things: woke culture and the WGA and, maybe, John Wick. He resists engaging in the discussions around his films while petulantly fueling them, blowing vape smoke onto the fires he swears he didn’t start; his previous box office successes (Old School, The Hangover, Due Date) are empty provocations that rarely age well. It’s not that he doesn’t have a point—we should interrogate the fetishization of gun violence in the John Wick movies—it’s that he doesn’t give a shit what you think about his point. Why work with a struggling screenwriter when you can write a movie with Robert Downey, Jr. in his trailer? When even the President of the WGA grins like an oaf as you take a dump in his mouth, casually insulting the industry he’s supposed to be defending? Why take responsibility for the messages surrounding his film, any film, when he can name-check Chantal Akerman and choom some sweet blackberry juul juice instead? More than any of Phillip’s previous films, Joker is a culmination of whatever worldview the director’s got, a hollow gesture toward humanity rendered in the ugliest genre contrivances he could get the studio to permit, reveling in the illusion of artistic risk. In exploring the last vestiges of civil life to which a mentally ill man clings—watching with impressive intimacy as Arthur unravels amidst losing his clown-for-hire job, his mother (Frances Conroy without much to do) and his grip on reality—Phillips finds no throughline but hate, his disdain emerging from, sewn through, the relentless gray grime of Gotham City like a rising army of folks in clown masks.
At the precipice of Joker’s transformation into the Clown Prince, as he’s starting to see the size and shape of psychopathy, Arthur confronts his City-appointed therapist (Sharon Washington), claiming that she doesn’t care about him, or about what he says, or that he gets picked on by roaming gangs of prepubescent children and mean co-workers alike. She responds brusquely, revealing that she will no longer be seeing him because the City is cutting funding, that, in fact, “they” do not care about her as much as “they” do not care about Arthur. Todd Phillips clearly does not care about them either, not about the social worker who can’t make a living while doing nothing but some of the most difficult and emotionally taxing labor in the public sector, nor about the weak and vulnerable people society’s abandoned, left with little recourse but to become subsumed into the dregs of the city’s infrastructure, or lash out facilely against its broken system. Were Phillips to observe mental illness as more than a caricature of a journaling madman, or an obvious late-film twist that cops Fight Club vibes to just make everyone (audience included) feel shittier, we might find a character to care about. On the other hand, were he to lean harder into the comic book tropes he only ostensibly references, the cartoonish villainy might be easier to embrace. His decision is to double-down on the realism, to make Gotham a seething hell hole and the toxic masculinity bred within, the vile disease at the heart of the Scorsese films he’s trying to ape, a symptom of mental illness rather than its foundation. He has nothing but contempt for anything and everything—Arthur, his therapist, rich people, poor people, the working mother (Zazie Beetz without much to do) in the apartment down the hall whose purpose is only to wake the incel from his slumber, the oppressed and the oppressors, the film industry that forces Phillips to make a superhero movie in order to actually make his dream vigilante crime thriller, the audience who wants a superhero movie rather than Todd Phillips’ dream vigilante crime thriller, the source text, comic books, safe spaces, you, me, himself probably. Joker thrums with Phillips’ hate.
Viscerally, the film can be a wonder. Joaquin Phoenix is undoubtedly something to behold, his body as Arthur Fleck like a refutation to the sad, blocky menace his flesh harnessed in You Were Never Really Here. Incomprehensible angles, buzzing energy and the ever-increasing sense of a Southern dandy swagger, Phoenix’s corpus inhabits every frame like he’s clinging to it to stay upright lest he shrink into himself and disappear completely. No wonder then that the film’s only truly moving moment comes after Arthur’s first acts of violence, killing a three-pack of rich white kids on the subway: Emboldened, he hides in a public restroom to metaphorically shed his old skin, to dance balletically before the dirty bathroom mirror and raise his hands in supplication to a greater power that has bestowed upon him such a moment of grace, both in control of his destiny for once and in thrall to something churning within him out of his control. It’s a glorious moment, all of the pain in the film and Phillips’ conception of the “origin story,” as well as Hildur Guðnadóttir’s sumptuous score and cinematographer Lawrence Sher’s claustrophobic visual sense, cohering into something masterful. We are in Arthur’s head, witness to his Great Becoming. We join him in his rapture.
We completely forget, too, that we’re watching a DC property. Which is probably Phillips’ intent: His take on the comic book origin story is to take it so seriously it isn’t one, to sap the genre of all the wit and originality it has at its best so that any allusions to Bruce Wayne, literal or otherwise—to his family, his birth as Batman, his best friend/ersatz dad Alfred or Arthur’s ultimate connection to his future arch-nemesis—feel studio mandated rather than integral world-building or meaningful ballast for the film’s simple plot. A man with a traumatic past and a deeply ill mother gets a shot at being on his favorite late night talk show when his pathetic attempt at stand-up comedy casts him as fodder for the talk show’s host, the weirdly charmless Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro, dreadful). The man also happens to live in Gotham City, the metropolis currently suffering through a garbage strike and saturated with crime, on the eve of a new mayoral race whose frontrunner is Batman’s rich industrialist dad. The man also happens to have a “condition” reducing him to sobbing laughs at the worst moments, alienating him from everyone he meets, a condition Franklin taunts on live television, moving the plot along by stoking the man’s psychosis. It’s all beside the point—Joker, we’ve been reminded incessantly, will never connect to any version of any DC cinematic universe—so any adherence to the character or what the character’s represented reads as rote. Obligatory and joyless.
Meanwhile, any commentary Joker attempts regarding class struggle is used only to plunge the film’s world into further darkness. The rich are pompous monsters who wear tuxedos to see Modern Times; the working class are husky bros ready to let a protest escalate quickly into mass murder. We watch the Wayne family wander down a dark alley as Joker’s brand of chaos begins to grab hold of the streets. We watch a thug in a clown mask take out a gun and follow them. We’re asked to once again sit through a scene from Batman’s origin story we’ve seen too many times before, a scene that exemplifies why so many directors to come before have wanted to make their own comic book movies, a scene that is and has always been held in reverence, however misguided. Phillips adds the word “fuck” to it. It’s all performative, thoughtless, the outrage of the proletariat and the threat of violent insurrection; the six or more cops who stood around doing absolutely nothing at the press screening; the undercover cops purportedly scattered throughout crowds opening weekend. Do not let anyone tell you that Joker captures our specific time, represents our specific society, both births and defines our specific zeitgeist, grabs ahold of our specific faces and breathes smoke down our throats. It doesn’t. Joker is, more than anything, fine. And we, more than anything, are not.
Director: Todd Phillips
Writers: Todd Phillips, Scott Silver
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Frances Conroy, Zazie Beets, Brian Tyree Henry, Bill Camp, Shea Wiggam, Marc Maron, Douglas Hodge
Release Date: October 5, 2019
Dom Sinacola is Associate Movies Editor at Paste and a Portland-based writer. You can follow him on Twitter.