One line toward the end of Todd Phillips' 'Joker' sums up the film better than any review ever could. Sitting backstage preparing for a late night TV appearance Joaquin Phoenix's Arthur Fleck is asked about his clown get up. Is it in support of recent protest that have taken up that iconography? "No, I don't believe in that. I don't believe in anything," he responds as if the previous hour and a half hadn't made that perfectly clear.
By this point in our cultural superhero saturation we should all be aware of the Joker's role as an agent of chaos. It's only been 10 years since Heath Ledger won an Oscar for portraying this mentality so forcefully. Still, director Todd Phillips had been making the rounds proclaiming that
'Joker' would be about something, not just another comic book film. Instead what we are delivered is a movie more lacking in its convictions than the character it explores.
Indeed, 'Joker' invokes a wide range of hot button issues--from mental illness to entitlement, gatekeeping to class anxiety-- but lacks the courage to explore them. When Arthur kills a few finance bros in self defense he inspires an anticapitalist movement that sweeps over Gotham. While the protestors are convinced of the merits of their cause, Arthur and the film itself seem less assured. The protesters are simultaneously portrayed as both noble and villainous.
Phillips' direction certainly feels little sympathy for the protesters but it also lacks any for the main subject of their ire; Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen.) Perhaps this is the both sides-ing that has to happen for a movie to open with $96 million.
Truly the only place in which Phillips' film has anything to say is when it comes to comedy. Like its titular character, 'Joker' is a deeply not funny film. Arthur addresses this pretty bluntly late in the movie as he fails against Robert De Niro's late night host Murray Franklin. Fully transformed into the Joker by now he laments that Murray gets to "decide what's funny or not."
It feels very difficult to separate Arthur's comments from those of his director who in a recent interview proclaimed that the world is too woke to create good comedy. Pretty incredible for a guy who is 8 years removed from a deeply homophobic and racist film that was roundly criticized even at the time. Maybe Phillips sees himself in his on screen anti-hero, the victim of a world that has become less kind to his particular brand of humor.
Whether that is truly the case or not, ‘Joker’ feels a chilling amount of sympathy for Arthur. Instead of a cold, broken murderer, he’s presented as I guy for whom everything just seem to break the wrong way. The climactic moment on Murray’s show is presented as a real moment of triumph. In this moment ‘Joker’ has become a celebration of the character.
Ultimately this is the problem with the film. Phillip’s chooses to lionize a character who has been victim to a great deal of societal harm, but without ever speaking out a position on the issues that plague his Gotham. We all know that the Joker doesn’t believe in anything, unfortunately his cinematic origin story doesn’t either. Perhaps this was the Joker’s Trick all along.